Take one public broadcaster. Take away much of its internal production capacity. Outsource it. Then take its content, and put it up for sale. At what stage does this organisation cease to be a public broadcaster, and when should we begin to try and redefine the term?

Yesterday, the ABC passed a significant landmark on its journey towards the crucial delivery of its triennial funding submission, on which much hope for the future hangs.

The milestone was the launch of ABC downloads, an online extension of the ABC shop by which customers will be able to pay a fee to download some of the programming from the ABC’s extensive library. Have a look at it here.

This innovation was not unexpected. ABC managing director Mark Scott has been talking for more than a year about the organisation’s exploration of new ways of raising revenue. What is the difference, he says, between going into an ABC shop and buying ABC content on a DVD, and downloading the content online?

His critics argue that the content should be free, because the taxpayer has already paid for it. (For a more sophisticated argument about the nature of “public goods” and the true cost of charging for them, see this blog post by Nicholas Gruen.)

So far there is only limited content available at ABC shop downloads. And according to the ABC’s spin doctors, the income in the first year will be negligible. So far as I could see browsing through the catalogue yesterday most of the content is available only for hire, not for keeps. I am told this will soon change, and stuff will be available to buy. In the meantime you can hire old episodes of Aunty Jack, and more recent episodes of programmes like the Chaser, and Four Corners.

It is the latter that bothers me the most. I can accept that in an imperfect world the ABC needs to sell its drama offerings once they have been screened for free. Better than taking advertising, I think. And I can see the sense in Mark Scott’s argument about there being no difference between paying for content in shops in the mall and shops in virtual space. But surely one of the things that is most important about the ABC, one of its chief public goods, is news and current events. I would have liked to think that programmes like Four Corners might have remain free to air in all mediums.

How was the selection of content available to download made? The truth is that the availability of content is governed largely by whether or not the ABC owns, or can beg borrow and buy the rights. Some of the cutting-edge drama about to hit our screens, such as The Hollow Men, is yet to be the subject of a firm agreement giving Auntie the right to make it available for paid download.

And this is where the paid download issue runs smack bang into the other end of the process line: the outsourcing of production. Increasingly, content goes in one end of the ABC, resides briefly on its platforms then comes out the other end and finds a home elsewhere.

Whether outsourcing is a good thing or the mark of the devil is one of the hottest debates in the faction-ridden institution. Should the ABC remain a major production house in its own right, or should it become primarily a commissioner of content?

Like just about everything else at the ABC, the debate is mired in political difficulty, ideological positioning, personality conflicts and self-interest.

There are three basic points of view on outsourcing at the ABC. We could label them “outhouse”, “inhouse” and “openhouse”.

First there are the outhousers. The head of television, Kim Dalton, points out that outsourcing allows every dollar of taxpayer’s money to be multiplied many times, because independent production houses bring in more money from other funders, and their own commercial operations. Outsourcing therefore means more bang for the buck, and more content on the screen. Meanwhile, outside production houses are only too happy to see more work and creative opportunities flow their way. For years they complained about the ABC being too precious, insular and difficult to deal with. This is now shifting, they say, to the benefit of the content we see or will soon see, on our screens.

Publicly, ABC executives talk about a mixed model, in which some production — such as specialist magazine programs — will stay within the institution. But staff suspect their sincerity, and it is true that there are some who can see little reason why the ABC should do any production in-house at all — although they acknowledge that news and current events should be done internally, to safeguard both expertise and independence.

These dynamics, including the distrust between management and staff, are not new. Way back in the mid 1990s when Bob Mansfield was appointed by the newly elected Howard Government to review the ABC, he recommended that the ABC continue to be a broadly based public broadcaster, providing a wide range of programs rather than only worthy “public goods”. But he also recommended the outsourcing of most production. That was the beginning of the disputes that continue to this day.

Ranged against the outhousers are the inhousers — a range of powerful forces including the ABC staff unions, the left of the ALP, the Friends of the ABC and the staff themselves. They see outsourcing as the vandalising of a public asset — the dismantling of the public’s production house. And where will it end?

Who will train the content makers of the future, given that many of those now working outside the ABC were trained at Auntie in the first place?

The inhousers argue that while outsourcing multiplies the taxpayer buck, it also limits what that buck will be used to buy. Independent production houses will only invest more money to match Aunties’ dollars if they can see a second sale for the product — often to cable television overseas. The consequence, the argument goes, is that only shows suitable for cable get made, and that means bland, generic, and not too idiosyncratically Australian.

So where does the truth lie in all this?

I have been ringing around the independent production houses presently providing content to the ABC to try and get an idea of how the numbers stack up. Does outsourcing mean bland and generic? Sorry to say, but the answer seems to be a frustratingly indefinite “it depends”.

The deals offered by the ABC are various. The types of show are various as well — studio based, long form documentary, high quality drama — the business model for each will be different and the numbers stack up differently.

Sometimes the ABC money is so crucial to getting the project off the ground that Auntie has as much control over the project as if it were done in-house. And sometimes that simply isn’t the case — Auntie is just one factor in the mix of elements that makes a project attractive and possible.

The independent production houses point out that some of the most successful programs, that have gone on to be sold overseas have been anything but bland and un-Australian. Witness Kath and Kim , and Summer Heights High, neither of which would have been made without the ABC. Make a good program, they argue and success will look after itself.

The other complicating factor is that the boundaries around the institution of the ABC are not as firm as they once were. Many of those working in the independent sector are former ABC employees. Some move in and out of Auntie from year to year. To what extent are they really “out of house”?

And this leads us to the third point of view, that of the open housers. These people include many of the young and restless among the ABC’s own staff. Raised in a new media world, they take an “open source” attitude to public broadcasting, and are inherently hostile to the idea that anybody owns anything, let alone controls it.

They criticise both inhousers and outhousers because all their arguments are about different kinds of control, and in different ways are vested in an understanding of the ABC as an institution, rather than a publicly owned forum and space.

Nobody really wants to hand over control to the audience, the open housers say, yet that is the way of the future.

The paradigm is changing. The ABC belongs to the people, and in the media world of the future only institutions with very porous boundaries will survive.

So content comes in, and content goes out. What sort of thing do we need in between?

Pretty fundamental questions and scary for those who see nothing but threat in asking them. Don’t worry. Not many people are.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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