ABC and SBS executives must be cursing their luck. Last year they were assured by the Government that, while they would miss out on extra funding in the 2008 budget, the triennial funding round of 2009 would be an improvement. In the interval, of course, the economy has gone to hell.

Even so, the Government stuck to its timetable of reviewing public broadcasting in the lead-up to the 2009 budget, releasing a short but expansive discussion paper last October on the future of ABC and SBS, designed to feed into the budget process as well as inform long-term thinking about public broadcasting. And last week the Government committed to an ABC children’s channel, although was careful not to say when.

The idea of an ABC digital children’s channel has had a tortuous history. There used to be one — called, imaginatively, ABC Kids — running 12 hours a day with a yoof channel, Fly, running the other 12. It was the product of Jonathan Shier’s short and havoc-wreaking reign which, in retrospect, yielded several excellent initiatives — in particular, increased funding for regional services and business programming. Regional media content, independent business coverage and advertising-free children’s programming are three key areas where commercial media can’t, or can’t be trusted to, deliver. Shier also wanted a full-time public affairs channel, an idea that eventually grew into A-PAC on subscription television.

ABC Kids was launched by Shier in 2001 as a sort of “proof of concept” initiative — he didn’t ask for funding, but expected that once it was up and running, the Government would throw some money its way rather than let it die. That plan didn’t quite work, partly because Shier was removed by the board. His successor, former ABC Head of Finance Russell Balding, closed ABC Kids in 2003, a decision revealed on the morning ABC was appearing at Senate Estimates. Then-Communications Minister Richard Alston, who was only told about the decision the day before despite his diligent stacking of the ABC Board, was enraged and launched his assault on the ABC’s Iraq coverage in direct retaliation.

However, the Howard Government finally came round to the idea in its final, fund-anything-that-moves stage, promising $20m a year during the 2007 election campaign. The ALP made supportive noises, but never committed the funds, which meant that in last year’s budget, where nothing got funding without an election commitment, the ABC missed out.

Before considering giving more money to the ABC, however, there’s the small matter of what savings the broadcaster could make. Some of the more absurd suggestions of the Howard era, like forcing the ABC to sell all its property and lease it back, can be left in the past (the taxpayer was invariably fleeced under such deals anyway). There’s also much criticism of the amount of government money (massively boosted over the years as the broadcasters have rolled out new digital and regional services) channelled through the broadcasters to transmission provider Broadcast Australia, but there’s little anyone can do about that: the Howard Government sold the transmission network as a monopoly to BA’s predecessor NTN, and bureaucrats have rued the decision ever since.

But the ongoing problem of the ABC’s standing army of production staff is still unresolved. The success of SBS’s commissioning model (extended by the Howard Government to the ABC through “ABC Independent” funding three years ago) shows there is no reason why the ABC needs to own production resources of the scale it currently does. The fact that most of Australia’s independent producers are whingers constantly on the look-out for a taxpayer teat on which to fasten does not undermine the case for reducing the amount the ABC spends on what one former senior executive called “the highest-paid table tennis players in the country”. This would yield millions of dollars in savings per annum, albeit with a large initial allocation needed for redundancies.

Quite how that is done isn’t clear given the ABC’s independence; you’d think a board that has had the likes of Michael Kroger and Maurice Newman on it in recent years would have moved to decimate the standing army, but it has never happened. But until it does, any further content funding should be delivered via the now-established ABC Independent production arm .

Last year, the Government also missed an opportunity to delay digital radio for several years. The ABC and SBS are getting tens of millions of dollars (to be passed through to BA) for digital radio services that will kick off later this year, which will the finest broadcasting technology no one can hear. The roll-out should have been delayed until after analog switch-off, which would have freed up considerable spectrum to resolve some of the problems with interference issues. Given, however, that the primary driver of digital radio is the commercial radio industry’s desire to prevent new entrants into the industry, sensible timing was never on the cards.

It is, however, time to provide the ABC with additional funding for its online services. Since the mid-1990s, the ABC has developed the best online service in the country with next to no help from Government. A combination news site, content host, kids’ play space, archive, meeting place for local communities — it is an example of the ABC doing what it does best, but which could be significantly strengthened. Yet it is not even recognised in the ABC’s formal budget outcomes or the ABC Act (although, thankfully, datacasting is in there). More online funding could also offset the cost of a kids’ channel by extending the ABC’s children’s web presence, providing a safe internet site for small children without constant bombardment of advertising and product placement.

SBS, similarly, has crafted a strong online presence with minimal help from Canberra despite a similar lack of formal recognition. SBS’s broader role, however is not sustainable in its current form. Whereas the ABC has five national radio networks, SBS barely one and a half to try to cram its non-English language radio services into, generating constant pressure between the need to serve emerging communities who need in-language media communication the most, and long-established communities who see SBS Radio as part of their birthright as members of multicultural Australia. Online can help that if SBS moved well-established community services — Italian, French, Greek — to the internet and freed up radio space for less-established communities who depend on the critical service provided, quietly and usually without much recognition, by SBS Radio.

SBS TV remains a problem, and the problem isn’t in-program ad breaks. It needed to escape the ethnic ghetto it was born into, but as a mainstream service it lacks a raison d’être except perhaps as a demonstration that quality television needs public funding. It too has transmission issues: it is still moving to splitting its signals so that it can tailor advertising to states rather than the whole country, which should enable it to generate more advertising revenue and also, eventually, provide more state-based programming. But any question about extra funding for SBS TV need to prefaced with a resolution of what, specifically, taxpayers are paying SBS TV to actually do that isn’t done by the ABC or the commercial networks.

But that all assumes public broadcasting is high up enough on the Government’s list of priorities to make the cut in one of the toughest budget years in living memory. Don’t count on it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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