Yesterday the ABC Managing Director Mark Scott made his pitch for the 2020 summit, in the process attempting to answer the question “what purpose for public broadcasting in a world of endless media choice”?

Reporting of the pitch in The Australian today focuses mostly on the channels. It anticipates that there will be six ABC television channels, 15 radio services, and a clutch of broadband offerings. Together these will span the need to be both universal and particular – to cater for broad audiences and niche audiences, including the local.

But the main thing that I think is new in this statement is a slight switch of emphasis. Scott’s critics (there are a few) have been accusing him of focussing very much on the “pipes” by which content is delivered, and having little to say about the actual content.

With this statement, he has begun to switch the emphasis to content. First, he presents the ABC – if adequately resourced – as the main home of Australian content in a world where technology will make the quota system applying to commercial stations irrelevant.

One example suffices. Scott suggests a landmark series of dramas based on the canon of Australian literature “providing an educational resource as well as content for TV and broadband.”

It is easy to see what this would mean. Such a series would doubtless lead to the reprinting of currently out of print works, perhaps by authors such as Eleanor Dark, Dorothy Hewett and so forth. This in turn would aid the teaching of these authors in schools and universities. A whole dialogue and awareness around the canon would be fostered that is presently stifled, if not impossible.

Another initiative the statement flags is a new series of landmark historical documentaries. Again, this would foster a dialogue around our history, hopefully taking us above and beyond the “history wars”.

These are potentially transformative projects. And as Scott says, only a public broadcaster is likely to take them on.

Scott, nothing if not politically clever, has made his pitch to fit hand in glove with the new Government’s agenda. The ABC can deliver content to compliment a national education curriculum. The ABC can foster innovation. The ABC can drive digital uptake. And so on and so forth. His 2020 Summit pitch is a clever document.

The focus to date on “pipes” and means of content delivery rather than content itself is partly a factor of funding. With limited money, many of Scott’s announcements have been about slicing and dicing existing content in new ways – and incidentally stretching an already pressured staff to do more and more with less and less. For more Australian content, more money is needed.

The preoccupation with pipes is also a criticism that could be made of the Government as a whole.

We have a broadband policy, but no communications policy. Some would say (perhaps, in this case, unfairly) that we have a policy to put laptops in schools, but no education policy.

Technology is so wiz-bang and changing so fast that the temptation is to think that technology alone is the answer, when of course in fact content is and always will be king.

The present communications minister, Stephen Conroy, sees his role as being about the “pipes” – broadband, telecommunications and commercial broadcasting licences. All questions about content get referred to his colleague, Minister for the Arts Peter Garrett, and I hear that Garrett is very hard indeed to see. Quite a few people in the arts world, including some at the ABC, are complaining about lack of access.

The indications are that Garrett interprets “arts” to mean high art and arts institutions – opera, ballet and the like.

With this pitch, though, the ABC is trying to remind Government that it is the most important cultural organisation in the country, and that it can continue to be that – given adequate money.

At the time of writing, the full 2020 statement is for some reason not yet on the ABC website, but doubtless will soon be posted here. It should be closely read by all those who wonder what Scott is up to, and in particular what he will be asking for in the triennial funding submission, due on Minister Stephen Conroy’s desk late this year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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