Hard to imagine the sober personage of ABC Managing Director Mark Scott singing karaoke, but if he did the tune would surely be A Spoonful of Sugar. It’s a handy ditty as the politically adept ABC chief tries to do more and more with no more resources – while limbering up to ask for a bigger share of the public purse.
Two weeks ago Scott announced an array of new ABC services. It was mostly a case of slicing and dicing existing content in new ways, but the announcement was nevertheless convincing evidence of Auntie moving with the technological times.
Yesterday came the medicine. New technology saves money. The broadcasting industry is going through what newspapers did twenty years ago, when technology eliminated hundreds of printers’ jobs. In London agency reporters tell their stories direct to robot cameras, operating their own auto queues with their feet. The same has been happening for years here in Australia at Sky News.
Auntie is moving with the times here too, and as a result there will be an unspecified number of redundancies at the ABC in production staff due to the automation of television studios. This pill was wrapped up in a bigger pill with the announcement of a new way of counting that will reveal – probably for the first time – the true cost of making television in house at the ABC. This will enable comparisons with contracting out. Meanwhile ABC staff will be encouraged to market any spare capacity to outsiders.
While Scott says the ABC remains committed to a mixed model with some in house production, the long term implications are both profound, tough on ABC staff, and probably inevitable.
Adding to the predictable angst, Scott is being very short on specifics. We don’t know how many redundancies there will be, when they will occur, how much money will be saved or how that money will be spent. As with all things to do with contracting out and efficiency, the devils and angels are likely to lurk in the yet to be announced detail.
Scott talked to Crikey yesterday evening and revealed a bit more of his thinking. Would the savings be spent on more reporters on the beat? He said he “aspired” to do this. Hmmm.
How many redundances? He wouldn’t say, but he pointed out that “traditional old” production studios needed eight or nine people to operate, whereas the new ones being used in Sydney and Melbourne need only two or three. The precise numbers of redundancies will depend on how many people are able and willing to be retrained and redeployed, he said, and this will be worked out in consultations about to begin.
As for the perennial outsourcing issue, Scott said that by outsourcing production, the ABC was able to do more with less. External production meant that other money, such as film commission funds, made Auntie’s dollar go further. He claimed that over the last two years every $1 million of ABC money spent on Australian content has resulted in $3.4 million of material going to air.
This alone means that outsourcing will continue and grow. At the same time, it seems that the popular cheap and cheerful studio based programs like New Inventors, Spicks and Specks and Talking Heads will continue to be done in-house.
This is probably for two reasons. They wouldn’t attract extra outside funding in any case, and the ABC is competitive in making them – as demonstrated by the fact that ABC staff are presently making Good News Week under contract for Channel Ten.
All this takes place in the larger context of the ABC’s triennial funding submission, presently in preparation and due to be delivered to Government late this year. Scott freely admits he is preparing the ground – demonstrating that the ABC is using its present allocation to the max.
“If we want to ask for more money in the future, and we do, then we have to have a robust answer to the question of how we use the money we already get,” he said.
What will he be asking for? “Too soon, too soon,” he responds, but gives some headlines. More high quality Australian content in drama and documentary, more money for multi-channelling, and more opportunities to use the ABC’s internet presence to deliver content – fitting hand in glove with the Rudd Government’s emphasis on fast Broadband infrastructure.
Expect more over the next few months as Scott uses every forum, including Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit, to begin singing a new tune.
To quote Abba “All the things I could do, if I had a little money. Money, money, money.”