The appointment of cultural warriors like Ron Brunton, Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle to the ABC Board by the Howard Government deprived the Board of a capacity to effectively oversee many of the broadcaster’s operations, given the specialist background required in areas such as program production and transmission.
But the Government’s obsession with ideology led to a more subtle, but potentially more significant failing.
During the Howard years, Australian media underwent a revolution. Online media began seriously fragmenting mass media audiences and advertising revenues, and empowering users. Digital television opened up opportunities for more content and interactivity (well, they did in most countries, if not in Australia, where PBL controlled media policy). Regional communities were abandoned by commercial radio in favour of networking and cost-cutting. Subscription television — albeit via a monopoly — became profitable and helped drive digitisation. The music industry found itself under siege from peer-to-peer swapping.
The ABC and SBS dealt with some of these challenges successfully. ABC Local Radio emerged as the bulwark of localism outside major metropolitan areas. Both broadcasters — with no government funding — also developed their online roles. The ABC website, in addition to its news role, became one of the most important sites for kids’ content, as well as localism — allied to its Local Radio network — and innovative online-only content.
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But in this period, other aspects of the broadcasters’ roles were under question. During the Jonathan Shier “era”, the ABC more or less temporarily stopped making local drama due to funding constraints. But no one remembers — commercial networks were making plenty of local content, because they’re required to. In radio, Triple J’s ratings flatlined, with its targeting of youth audiences mimicked successfully by Nova FM. The last links between the ABC and its orchestras were severed earlier this decade. At SBS, the shift away from its origins as a multicultural broadcaster to a quasi-commercial broadcaster accelerated (but didn’t start) under Shaun Brown.
Throughout all this, the broadcaster’s charters remained unchanged. Well, nearly — in 2001 the ABC and SBS Acts were amended to engage in that eminently successful creation of Richard Alston, datacasting, although neither broadcaster ever “datacast” a single pixel. In the meantime, the ABC and SBS developed their online activities, despite the internet not being mentioned by their Acts.
What the Howard Government should have attempted was to think less about the broadcasters’ bias and more about their actual long-term role in a rapidly-changing Australian media. And its Board appointees should have driven this process.
Of course there are some who think there is no role for public broadcasting — that the government should get out of media entirely. Others are at the FABC end of the spectrum, supporting the comprehensive broadcasting and cultural role given the ABC by its charter — and the funding necessary to perform that role (think BBC-sized funding, which is about five times the combined ABC and SBS budgets).
And there are many positions in between. I think the broadcasters should concentrate on clear areas of market failure or where we can’t trust the market. We can’t rely on the market to deliver genuinely independent news and current affairs. Nor can our TV networks be relied on to provide children’s programming that isn’t part of a scheme to make them eat sh-t or buy rubbish. And local content for our regional communities appears to be something commercial media refuse to provide.
The rest, however, is up for grabs. Our commercial networks reluctantly but successfully produce local drama because of regulation. They do lifestyle programming better than the ABC as well. It’s not clear whether Triple J still has a role anymore. Classic FM — I’m a devoted listener — looks a lot like middle class welfare.
At SBS, radio continues to play an enormously valuable role in LOTE communities, particular among new arrivals. The only criticism is that well-established communities like the Greeks and Italians continue to get too much airtime at the expense of new communities who need in-language services more. Digital radio can fix this.
SBS Television, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clearly-defined role any more and it’s not just because of the ads.
Next year’s triennial funding process will ramp up shortly. Shaun Brown kicked off SBS’s bid at the Sydney Institute last night, pitching for a whopping $70m a year extra. The ABC bid will follow in short order. This time, their bids might be assessed in a more strategic framework than occurred under the previous Government. At the Prime Minister’s direction, a review of public broadcasting is being carried out within the Department of Broadband — one of the few signs of life in broadcasting policy.
More than cosmetic changes to the roles of the ABC and SBS will be difficult, but after twelve years and a media revolution, some clear thinking about them would be welcome.