Public broadcasting is about to get a shake-up.

I understand the federal government will shortly announce an inquiry into the role of public broadcasting in modern day Australia.

The Minister’s office this morning told Crikey that they “could not comment on speculation” but confirmed what we already know — that the triennial funding rounds are coming up. Sorry guys, but the cat is out of the bag.

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The inquiry was originally planned as broad ranging, but has since been pulled back into a public service conducted exercise intended to be a short, sharp prelude to the consideration of both the ABC and SBS triennial funding submission in the next budget.

The terms of reference for the inquiry are not available, but I understand submissions will be invited.

There are several cans of worms that could be opened.

Critics of public broadcasting will ask what purpose it serves in a world of media plenty.

Others will doubtless raise that old chestnut, the possible amalgamation of SBS and the ABC. Trying to do this would be incredibly complicated, given that the two organisations have quite different charters and approaches. As well, either the SBS would have to drop its advertising, which in turn would mean a need for more Government funding, or else the ABC would have to accept a part of its organisation that carried ads — which would require changes to legislation not to mention public outcry.

ABC managing director Mark Scott laid out his vision for the ABC at the 2020 Summit. It was all about Australian content and the delivery of that content. This, in turn, is all about funding.

The Labor Party promised to increase Australian content on the ABC in its election promises, but this is a big ticket item.

Meanwhile the ABC wants to launch its new digital children’s channel, and a public affairs channel as well, but to do this it needs more spectrum.

SBS director of strategy and communications, Bruce Meagher, referred questions about the inquiry to the minister, but said SBS would be applying for increased government investment and was “confident” of a positive result. The ABC also referred all questions to the Minister’s office.

Meanwhile Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is wrestling with what to do with the spectrum that was to be used for the stillborn Channel A and Channel B — the bullsh-tty datacasting exercise launched by the previous Government. Will this be given to public broadcasters, or to community television, which without digital spectrum is facing a “fade out” problem as Australians make the transition to digital television?

How many of these cans of worms the Government will open up in its inquiry, I don’t know. But those interested in public broadcasting should start sharpening their pencils.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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