ABC Managing Director Mark Scott sure knows how to capture the limelight. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was on ABC Radio National Breakfast this morning sounding pessimistic about any increase in ABC funding in the budget – which is no surprise to anyone.

But Conroy’s non-specifics will be overshadowed by a major announcement Scott will make this afternoon that represents a big expansion of ABC services, and an attempt to recapture Auntie’s position as the main digital innovator in media.

At the end of the month Auntie will launch three new internet based television channels, and another sixty regional and local websites designed to carry the ABC’s strength in local radio into the online world. The three new internet based television channels will not be the usual internet video experience, in which the content is in a tiny box. Rather they will be full screen, and if the computer is connected in the right way, viewable on the loungeroom television screen.

The first channel will be catch up television, offering replays of popular content. The second will be a channel of natural history programs called ABC Real. The third will be a dedicated ABC Shop Channel, offering what Scott has been flagging for some time – pay per download access to ABC content.

Thus the announcement both demonstrates what can be done with present funding, and opens a means of earning more money. This has already been controversial. Internal critics like Quentin Dempster argue that all content should be free – since the taxpayers have already paid for it. But as it becomes clear that ABC funding is low on the priority list of the new Government, the ABC us cutting its cloth in new ways.

Scott assured Crikey this morning that material presently available for podcast and vodcast for free – such as Radio National programs and The Chaser – would remain free.

The ABC Shop channel would focus on the content presently available for purchase on DVDs and the like at the ABC’s retail outlets.

He also promised that the ABC Shop Channel would be the only one of the new websites to carry anything that might be described as advertising.

Meanwhile another new service is under construction – a 24/7 news service, initially providing content to all other parts of the ABC. However, it is clear that this is preliminary to offering the service direct to the audience online and via digital television, meaning that Auntie will be giving Skynews a run for its money.

The 60 new local sites, will become part of ABC Radio Director Sue Howard’s bailiwick, but they are no longer radio in any ordinary sense of the word. They will offer text, audio and video content, include lots of audience provided content, and lots of interaction. Scott described them to Crikey this morning as “sixty new town squares” in which Australians can discuss their affairs.

So what about funding? Scott, like Conroy, hosed down expectations for the budget, saying that the corporation’s focus was on the triennial funding submission later this year.

But it should not be missed that the internet sites fit hand in glove with the Rudd Government’s action to deliver faster Broadband internet access. Mark Scott understands the politics of his job – perhaps better than any of his predecessors.

With more money, he acknowledges, there could be much more. In particular he thinks the case for ABC3, the anticipated new children’s channel promised by the Howard Government but yet to be promised by Labor, is a “compelling case”.

The obvious criticism of the announcement is that it is largely delivering existing content in new ways. It’s all about cutting the existing cloth in new ways. What’s missing? Well, all the things that have been missing for a while — new drama and documentary content. With the best will in the world, that takes more money.

So ABC watchers will have more ways to watch – but should stop hoping for much in the budget, and focus on the response to the triennial funding submission at the end of the year.

Peter Fray

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