This morning the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has announced that it will launch a new 24 hour news television channel — the latest in its  multichannel offerings, adding to ABC’s 1, 2 and 3.

This gives some form to noises Managing Director Mark Scott has been making for at least two years now, along the lines that if pay television’s Sky News can provide a round the clock news service with fewer journalists than the ABC employs, then the national broadcaster should be able to so as well.

The new round the clock news centre that will service the new channel is being designed as a focal point for the invigorated Auntie, with its home to be in the cathedral-like foyer of the ABC headquarters in Ultimo – following the trend pioneered in this country by Channel Seven in Sydney of having journos on show to the public as they do their stuff. (No nose picking, guys).

The channel will be launched this year,  I understand in the next few months, and is being done without any new money from the federal government for content. We are promised new content designed for the channel, as well as the familiar existing offerings from the ABC’s News and Current Affairs department.

Some – but I gather not all – of the savings from streamlining and automating of production over the last few years are being used to support the new service.

But while the ABC is trying to stir up excitement about the new channel, a surprising number of questions remain unanswered, given that the launch is only months away.

Will this Channel be badged “ABC 4”? No name has yet been decided.

Will this be a matter of stretched ABC journalists being asked to do more with the same resources? Apparently not, or not only. I am told that job advertisements for more journalists to be assigned to the continuous news service will be appearing almost at once – surely the first time in a while that a major news organisation has mounted editorial recruiting. But how many new journalists? Once again, I can’t get answers.

Perhaps less surprisingly, the ABC is not saying how much it is spending on the new service and channel. Nor will it say what the total saving is from the changes to production, and how much remains in the kitty after the spending on the new channel and the continuous news service is allowed for.

The ABC media release quotes Scott as saying: “Broadcasting around the clock will enable the ABC to increase its in-depth coverage of local, national and international affairs through background features and analysis, combined with the ABC’s unrivalled long-form current affairs reporting.”

The rumble from within Auntie is that it is precisely the depth of reporting that is getting harder to deliver, with reporters and overseas correspondents now having to deliver content to web, as well as radio and television, and thinking and research time at a premium.

Yet Scott is probably right in thinking that a 24 hour news capability is pretty well compulsory if Auntie is to stay up with the times.

Back to unanswered questions.

The channel will be delivered using the ABC’s High Definition spectrum allowance – meaning that only those with HD capabilities will be able to receive it.

Will it also be carried on cable, so it can also be received by more people? The question remains unanswered.

Will the new channel be streamed live on the internet? Don’t know, although the media release speaks about using multiple platforms, so we should expect so.

Meanwhile, as this column from News Limited’s Malcolm Colless anticipated, the ABC’s plans are likely to be cast by its rivals as “a taxpayer  funded declaration of war on commercial media outlets in Australia”.

ABC management can be expected to respond that serving Australians with news and information is a core requirement of the ABC charter. And that’s true.

Nevertheless, it is another example of how one of the chief battles of the media decade will be between public broadcasters and commercial viewer-pays services. And one has to suspect that the timing of this announcement is designed to play into the current field of battle — the Australia Network, the international Australian broadcasting service run for the Federal Government under contract by the ABC.

Sky News will be after the contract to run the service when the five year contract expires in 2011. Government is expected to make a decision on who will get the gig in the next six months.

Followers of the ABC will remember Scott’s preemptive strike in his speech late last year,  in which he announced high ambitions for the ABC to expand its international offerings to become the heart of the nation’s “soft diplomacy”.

The continuous news service, and the new channel, will be part of that pitch.

Meanwhile, here’s the snappy promotional video:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaJC5wYF_fs[/youtube]

For more commentary, see my blog.

Peter Fray

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