The ABC’s launch last week of its iView streaming TV offering shows just where the momentum and power is in the Australian broadcast media.

The ABC has an annual revenue from the government and other sources of around $1 billion, less than that of the Seven Network, and on that it runs the ABC TV business, radio, music, enterprises, a rapidly growing online business and its international service.

Included in that is the country’s biggest and best news and current affairs business (radio and TV).

The commercial networks, by contrast, are a technological and reputational backwater: sad businesses trying to find ways of maintaining their position, rather than growing. Of the three, only the Seven Network has any ideas about growing its future in a digital world, and compared to the ABC, it’s second tier and far more costly.

With Friday’s axing of Sunday and Nightline by the Nine Network, the three commercial TV Networks have all but abandoned serious news and current affairs to the ABC and SBS.

From a plethora of upmarket news and current affairs programs, Nine will only have a small segment of one program that will take national issues seriously: the Laurie Oakes interview part of the new Sunday news program that will replace Sunday from Sunday week.

It will be an hour instead of the two hours that Sunday had for 27 years.

Nine is keeping the Laurie Oakes Sunday interview simply to keep the political veteran happy; he is the only person on the Nine Network who gives the Network’s increasingly feeble news efforts any credibility. To lose him would mean a return to 1970s irrelevance.

Nine’s abandonment of serious news and current affairs has been a big David Gyngell push: he killed off the Small Business program and played a part in neutering Business Sunday and Sunday, with the active encouragement of John Alexander and James Packer.

Now Nine has another cost cut to make: there is no need for a news and current affairs chief in John Westacott. All that remains are the news broadcasts in each city market at 6pm, the national morning and afternoon news, news updates, A Current Affair and 60 Minutes, plus Today. All the heads of these programs could easily report to Gyngell, as they did back in the days when Sam Chisholm was running Nine in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Westacott earns around half a million dollars, which is what Nightline cost five nights a week.

Nine said in the statement announcing the death of Sunday and Nightline (or rather John Westacott did) that the decisions were made because “today’s realities impose much tougher cost and performance benchmarks across the media industry than those of the past, and sadly there is not sufficient economic appeal for a loss-leader like Sunday, as good as it has been for Nine and television journalism.”

Ah, killing Sunday and Nightline only saves around $5 million a year at the most. Killing off A Current Affair would make a real saving of $15 million a year or more. Nine and PBL Media need to find as much money as possible because there’s a rumoured $200 million interest payment due by the end of September. The aborted sale of its Sydney and Melbourne property meant around $100 million of those sale proceeds will not be available for the payment and paying for the digital conversion of Nine’s stations in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Nine is paying Eddie McGuire more than $5 million a year to do nothing but pop his head up occasionally on TV and to front Collingwood.

Last week David Gyngell reassured the slumping NRL Footy Show that it would return in 2009, despite its worst ever ratings performance. It is an expensive program with the NRL and AFL editions. But both are vital to broader commercial issues at Nine: the NRL to the NRL broadcast contract and the AFL show to the lobbying for the post-2011 broadcast contract with the AFL.

Seven has no serious news and current affairs programs, nor does Ten.

Foxtel, or rather Sky News, which is part-owned by Seven, Nine and Sky of London (with News Ltd the local representative) is now the innovator in commercial TV news with the start up of the Sky Business news channel this year.

But for all the invective directed at Ten and Seven from Nine and its spinners this year (and mates at News Ltd), they have at least spent money on news and current affairs this year, unlike Nine.

A few years ago Nine ripped off an ABC Network promo from the US and changed it to say that More Australians got their news from Nine than any other Network. No longer. It’s now more people in Australia get their news from the ABC than any other network.

ABC has the 7pm News seven nights a week, The 7.30 Report Monday to Thursday (and Stateline local editions Friday nights), over two hours of news and current affairs on Sunday morning, Lateline and Lateline Business for a combined hour-plus Monday to Friday, a midday news, Four Corners and Media Watch on Monday, Foreign Correspondent on Tuesday nights and Q&A on Thursday nights. Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope and the weekly Australian Story. Combined, these programs tackle more issues and generate more news than any show on Nine, Seven or Ten, with the exception of Sunday.

As for the commercial networks, it’s back to the dark years of the 1970s when the networks thought they ruled the roost and could do anything. Kerry Packer’s last great programming initiative is 60 Minutes. It’s still popular but is a pale version of itself with so-called ‘flirt interviews’, lightweight profiles and lightweight reports.

Even SBS, long jeered at by the commercial heavyweights, has more weekly serious current affairs programs than the commercial networks do in Insight and Dateline. There is now an opening for SBS to spend some of the money it is getting from the controversial advertising islands in programs on new news and current affairs programming as well as new local drama. SBS has been handed an enormous opportunity by the gun-shy commercial networks.

There will be advertisers who will support it.

Peter Fray

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