Crunch day is arriving for the ABC and SBS. During the next six months the public broadcasters will be compiling and lodging their triennial funding submissions with Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy.

The Rudd Government’s response will determine whether public broadcasting has a bright future in Australia, or whether it is always going to be a needy relation, scrabbling for cash and trying to do more with less until the question “why do we need it” gains dangerous force.

It is probably safe to say that if the Rudd Government does not deliver, then no Government in the foreseeable future is likely to do better.

There is lots of action going on just under the surface, and lots of political manoeuvring. As we reported last week, a public service-led inquiry into public broadcasting will be announced soon. My understanding is that there were originally plans for a white paper style of exercise, but that these were pulled back into a short, sharp and limited inquiry, designed to influence the triennial funding decisions.

In some ways this is a shame. In this time of media change, a white paper on public broadcasting might be a very useful thing, but there are cans of worms involved that nobody wants to open.

So Crikey rides into the fray. This week we begin a series of articles — and invite your contributions — on whether the public broadcasters are fulfilling their charters, what they are doing, what they should be doing and how to take things forward.

To start with, let’s track some of the undertow as the triennial funding submissions are prepared.

Last Thursday the ABC head of television, Kim Dalton, delivered this speech which was a politic and politely phrased but nevertheless passionate plea for the Government to stop being such a nerd, get its head out of its orifice and actually start thinking about what the ABC could do.

Dalton protested that at present all the big thinking is about the “tubes” of communications infrastructure, and broadband in particular, but Government is failing to pay any attention to what will go down those tubes.

While reminding everyone that the Government had promised to lift Australian content levels on the ABC, and protesting great confidence that this promise would be fulfilled, he outlined how the national broadcaster could sit at the heart of innovation in drama, education and the creative life of the nation — if it had the money.

But is there anyone in Government with ears to hear this kind of message? Nobody seems to know — not even those with the best access.

Meanwhile there are worrying signs for the sorts of big creative thinking in Government that might favour public broadcasting and a vibrant arts sector more generally.

For example, the Government has committed $17 million to a Creative Industries and Innovations Centre — part of the Enterprise Connect election commitment. This should be a beacon to creatives and artists everywhere, and the ABC should be part of it — but the signs are not good. Rather than being in the portfolio of Arts Minister Peter Garrett, it sits with Industry Minister Kim Carr.

People in the arts community and the production houses that feed the ABC have noted with distress that this indicative budget shows that $14 million of the dosh will be tied up in consultants and bureaucracy. Only a measly $3 million will be available to partner organisations to actually come up with ideas. Those in the know fear this centre will be more about control and narrow political agendas, rather than edgy and creative ideas.

The other great white hope is the Innovation Inquiry presently being led by Terry Cutler, which is expected to lead into a full white paper on innovation. But will the arts, let alone the public broadcasters, have a place?

The Cutler inquiry met to consider its draft recommendations recently and will report by the end of July. ABC watchers are hoping for something to help the national broadcaster, and the ABC made a submission, once again pitching its case to sit at the heart of cultural innovation. (SBS did not make a submission).

But will public broadcasting, or the arts industries generally, have much to hope for? Other submissions from the arts industries were thin or non-existent.

Nevertheless there are people on Cutler’s panel who have been thinking about public broadcasting for some time. One of them is blogger and economist Nicholas Gruen, who earlier this year blogged on the future of the ABC, with ideas for its future. He had an extensive agenda — much broader and somewhat different to that coming from within the ABC.

He recommended, for example, that the ABC should post its entire archive on the web for downloading by whoever wanted to use it. Rather than charging for downloads — which has been mooted by ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, as much as possible should be for free. The cultural benefits would far outweigh the benefits of the revenue, said Gruen.

Gruen also wanted the ABC to embrace creative commons licensing, and further, to embrace public comment on programming and embrace openness in planning programs by using the interactive capabilities of the internet.

“Websites could foreshadow possible and planned programs. This would enable commentators to suggest talent for various discussions, they could thrash through some of the arguments in a particular area and suggest angles they’d like covered.”

Gruen seems to be suggesting the ABC should get in to crowd sourcing.

“The ABC should scour the resources of Web 2.0 and community broadcasting more fully both in Australia and elsewhere with a view both to bringing them to greater [mainstream media] prominence and also to supporting their growth. I’d like to see the ABC make a more concerted effort to be part of the leaven with which the great broadcasters of the future are discovered.”

Those ideas go well beyond the more controlled plea for more money coming from the ABC.

Scott made his pitch for more money, outlining a vision of a multi-channel ABC rich in Australian content at the 2020 Summit.

But the final report of the relevant panel went much further, calling for new charters for the ABC and SBS to reflect the changing times.

Meanwhile, there is pressure both within and outside the organisation for the ABC to be even braver than it has been in embracing new media innovation. When Dalton made his speech on Thursday, he was met with a series of questions about embracing amateur content available on the web, and making the archive available for “mash-ups.”

He responded that while all that had its place, he never wanted to see a situation in which the Chris Lilleys of the world were replaced by patchy amateur content.

Fair enough. But it is becoming clear that within the creative community — and within the younger people on the ABC staff — there is a head of steam behind Web 2.0 and the possiblities for the ABC to become less of an institution, and more of a “space” for its audience.

This in turn goes to the heart of the nature of a lumbering institution such as the Auntie, with its many factions and internal battles.

What role for professional content makers in the new media age? All this part of the question “Why public broadcasting?”

For more on all this, tune in to Crikey tomorrow.

In the meantime, your comments are invited.

Peter Fray

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