The ABC has formed a joint venture with a commercial television network in a radical shake-up of the way it delivers programming to Australian audiences.
Under the plan the ABC will rely on a newly formed joint venture with the regional commercial TV operator WIN TV, to broadcast, or “play-out,” all of its television channels to every state and territory.
Unlike the current system — which is ABC owned and controlled, and is decentralised across the various state and territory offices — the new facility will be centralised in Sydney and will not be controlled by the national broadcaster.
The plan has been promoted internally as a way of delivering “enhanced” and “cost effective” services and “increasing the capability and capacity for television now and into the future.” David Pendleton, the ABC’s chief operating officer, told staff yesterday that joining forces with commercial TV to create a custom built, digital play-out facility “will be another step forward in the evolving media landscape.”
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But there are fears within the ABC about the loss of control and about the governance of the new centralised facility. Insiders say they are also concerned about the ABC’s reliance on the new facility as it may mean the loss of interstate backups. Under the current scheme, the ABC’s Master Control is duplicated in Sydney and Melbourne to allow for switching in emergencies. Insiders want to know what will happen if the new facility is hit by a storm or other disaster. Will that close down every ABC TV service across the country?
The joint venture will be run by a new board with equal membership from both the ABC and WIN TV, prompting more criticism, given the larger size of the ABC’s network and the national broadcaster’s substantially larger capitalisation.
There will also be job cuts, with speculation that as many as 80 positions will be lost, while another 30 will become available in the new facility. Employees were told yesterday that “it is possible that ABC staff and expertise will be transferable and very valuable to the management team of the new organisation,” but the ABC also stressed that no one will be entitled to a position as all the jobs will be filled by the management of the new facility.
The new play-out facility – which Crikey believes will be located in Sydney’s Campbelltown – will broadcast the signals for ABC1, ABC2, ABC HD and the new ABC 3 and will individually brand each channel for each local market. WIN TV signals will also be sent from the facility, with suggestions that other networks may join the consortium as well.
Paradoxically, the ABC has promised the centralised facility will allow the national broadcaster to “respond rapidly to local state emergencies (and) breaking news in any region,” while initiating “live national programming in response to federal emergencies.”
Another staffer told Crikey that if the joint venture saves the ABC millions and if that money is reallocated into programming, the scheme may have merit, although he noted that no one in management has made a strong business case as yet, or given a reassurance that programming will receive any windfall. The insider also regretted that Master Control staff will be forced to “walk the plank” as a consequence of the changes.