Following close on the heels of its surprise announcement of a National Broadband Network, the federal Government is now determining what role our national broadcaster will play on the very cables that will finally obliterate the distinction between television and the internet.

The ABC has asked for a blank cheque, or at least a pretty sizeable one, to be a major player in the new world order — on the internet. And the May Budget will soon tell us if it’s been successful in its triennial funding bid.

Now, it’s generally unfashionable, if not positively unpatriotic, not to support increased funding for the ABC. A bit like not backing the war in Iraq after the first troops had been committed. Or not unreservedly backing the stimulus packages sent to save us all. It is, after all, “our” ABC.

But the ABC is, at one and the same time, the greatest friend of the Australian film and television industry, and one of its greatest enemies. Just as the current financial meltdown has the potential to allow new players, and new ways of doing business, to emerge from the ashes (at least, it would have done had so many of the old players not been so massively propped up by their respective governments), so the new digital age provides an opportunity for new, small companies to take on leading roles; for fresh models of doing the media business; and for new players to find new ways to “monetize content”.

Many independent media companies in the UK (as well as Rupert Murdoch) are increasingly questioning the British taxpayer-funded BBC model and especially the anti-competitive practices of its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide (which, incidentally, has already gobbled up the once-iconic Australian company, Lonely Planet). In fact, the whole notion of national broadcasters is being, and should be, thoroughly questioned in the new digital age.

As the ABC searches for its new identity online, one of the areas it intends to move into is community television. As Managing Director Mark Scott recently explained:

Part of the ABC’s funding proposal in this budget is to seed money into communities to allow them to develop local content for audiences; for the ABC to train, facilitate and host, but allow new audiences to create content themselves.

But why on earth do we need an ABC to do this? Going, or gone, are the massive overheads of traditional broadcasting and the need for Government intervention. Surely this can be done by a multitude of private sector operators? In fact, it already is.

Using Government money to compete with the private sector is nothing new at the ABC. For decades, our ABC hosted an in-house Natural History Unit that effectively killed off independent wildlife film production in Australia. Already the ABC is demanding internet rights, albeit initially geoblocked (i.e. not readily viewable from other countries), if producers want their programs broadcast on the traditional ABC — a move that adversely affects the ability of producers to get additional money from local DVD sales and, potentially, from the rest of the world (which is essential if they’re to make the programs in the first place).

The private or independent sector is suffering enough already under the Rudd Government’s seismic shift towards Big Government, without letting the 600-pound gorilla (as Director of Television Kim Dalton has himself called the ABC) loose in a new zoo — one where the habitat, for the first time ever, was a bit more level and could have provided many new niches.

The ABC has had a big, government-funded head start: the opportunity to build up Brand ABC for several decades before the democratising blending of television and the internet.

But how has the ABC used its privileged access to the airwaves and the hearts and minds of Australians in the relative marketing paradise of the free-to-air broadcast years. Well, yes, we got Seachange and Mother and Son and much else besides. But turn on to the ABC tonight or any night of the week, and you’ll see that barely a day goes by without a prominent BBC logo at the front end of a prime time show, or an advertisement on our (non-commercial) ABC extolling the virtues of the latest BBC DVD.

As a result, there’s a huge audience out there that, thanks to the Australian national broadcaster, believes that the BBC makes the best dramas, or wildlife films, or cop shows, or comedies, or all of the above. No doubt about where that audience will be heading as soon as they’ve got high-speed broadband and have worked out how to use the internet as their source of television.

If the Government wants, as it undoubtedly should, to see more Australian programs — kids shows, dramas, wildlife films, documentaries — being made and, more importantly, being watched, it’s got a really big choice to make in the next two weeks.

Does it channel its funds through the ABC to further enhance the ABC’s massive competitive edge against smaller Australian companies in the new broadcast arena, and to force many Australian film-makers to continue going through one inevitably arbitrary gatekeeper (aka an ABC commissioning editor) in order to get their products out there into the new marketplace?

Or does it continue with the previous Government’s (and now its own) brave initiative to transform the Australian film and television industry into a diverse collection of entrepreneurial businesses by rewarding market-driven success with tax breaks and by providing financial support directly to viable businesses that make top quality films, TV and online content themselves?

The Australian film and television industry is of extraordinary importance to the Australian economy and it deserves the strongest possible support from Government. But if the May Budget sends a large chunk of that support in the direction of the ABC, then it must come with the strongest possible protection for private sector companies with which the ABC will inevitably, and increasingly, be competing.

Dr David Curl is a director of the Australasian Natural History Unit and the creator of the internationally-acclaimed films The Call of Kakadu and Silhouettes of the Desert. He is also a Board Member of two of the industry’s peak bodies, the Australian Cinematographers Society and Australian Directors Guild (though the views expressed here are his own).