The national broadcasters’ revenues are like capital-guaranteed investments. Through the boom, the world left you behind. When the bust came, standing still made you a winner.

In the 30 years to 2000/01, the ABC’s government revenue increased at only half the rate of economic growth. Commercial radio revenue grew at the same rate as the economy and commercial television grew twice that fast.

Today, advertiser-funded mainstream media companies are dealing with a structural shift towards online and mobile media and the cyclical downturn in advertising. They are trying to break their falls rather than scale new heights.

At the ABC and SBS, the real level of base funding is being maintained for the next three years. Then there’s more money for new things. The ABC gets $165 million over the next three years to pay for the ABC3 children’s TV channel, an increase in TV drama output to at least 90 hours a year and more than 50 “enhanced ABC Local Broadband Hubs” in the country. The SBS gets $20 million for an extra 50 hours a year of Australian programs.

It’s not such a bad time to be a media company that gets most of its money from the government.

The budget is a clear sign that the government has changed. Whitlam and Hawke both substantially increased ABC funding, while Fraser cut it (based on annual averages paid for ABC activities excluding transmission facilities). At this stage of Howard’s first term, the ABC was working out how to deal with a 10% cut, although later spending on regional and local programming and independent documentary and drama helped restore funding to roughly the same real level of the last six Hawke/Keating years, and extra sums for digital TV facilities took total funding well above the early 1990s.

Across the broader communications sector, while Howard and some of his ministers tried to get their hands all over the ABC, they spent most of their four terms trying to get out of telecommunications by privatising Telstra.

Rudd is sending off cheques and best wishes to the national broadcasters, while sweeping back into telecoms. The $3.5 billion the ABC and SBS will get over the next three years, including about $800 million for transmission facilities, is dwarfed by the commitment to the new National Broadband Network. An “initial investment” of $4.7 billion will be a mere tip on the way to a majority government stake in a public-private venture costing $43 billion.

If it happens as promised, this new network will provide a faster, cheaper platform for the ABC and SBS to deliver content and engage with their audiences. If it doesn’t? They might be thankful for a minister with bigger things to worry about than them.

Jock Given is Professor of Media and Communications at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research.

Peter Fray

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