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TV & Radio

Mar 14, 2011

How ABC News 24 lost pace with news from Japan

The ABC's 24-hour news channel came in for a kicking today over its weekend coverage of what is surely the biggest breaking story of recent times, if not the decade. Some of that kicking is deserved.

The ABC’s 24-hour news channel came in for a kicking today over its weekend coverage of what is surely the biggest breaking story of recent times, if not the decade — the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Some of that kicking is deserved.

On Friday and Sunday, ABC24 did a good job covering the earthquake. Indeed, figures show that ABC24 topped the digital ratings on Friday night. But on Saturday, its coverage was embarrassing.

For the brickbats, see Tim Blair here and here and Caroline Overington in The Australian’s Media Diary. Blair describes it as the “most abysmal performance by the Australian public broadcaster in its 82 year history” and details how, as the world was “screaming for news from Japan”, ABC 24 on Saturday screened old footage, including on Belgium’s national identity problems.

I watched ABC 24 pretty continuously on Friday night, and thought the coverage was excellent. Even by then, though, the limitations were becoming clear — not only on the ABC but also on rival Sky News.

What does one do on television with a really big story when there is only a limited amount of footage available, even when it is extraordinary footage? All news channels, including the ABC, played the same pictures, and the same interviews, over and over again. It was still riveting because of the sheer magnitude of the story. But by Saturday, not only the ABC but also other services like BBC World, had stopped running continuous coverage.

Yet there is no doubt ABC 24 looked particularly wrong-footed.

It is partly about resources. The channel relies largely on repackaging of content already screened.

I am of the view that the ABC was right to introduce a 24-hour news broadcast. These days, a news service that isn’t providing around-the-clock news coverage is hardly a news service at all. Yet we know it was done on the smell of an oily rag. In fact, we don’t know the total cost because the ABC won’t tell us. We do know the butter of existing journalistic content was spread over yet another platform.

There’s no doubt there were problems on Saturday, but it wasn’t the journalists. They were on deck, as anyone listening to ABC Radio could tell. Rather, it was the ABC 24 schedule and the failure to ditch it.

It seems the station lacks the ability, or the brief, to make the brave decisions, to ditch the schedule and put together, raw and repetitive and questing as it may be, the best rough draft of history that can be cobbled together. Yet that is what should be done when a big story breaks. There seems to be little ability or willingness to throw the switch to maximum effort, roll in fresh resources and jump off the cliff into the unknown. On Saturday, the B-Team seemed to be in charge. What were the A-team doing with their weekend?

To be fair, even on Saturday, ABC 24 was not a news-free environment. As one would expect, the headlines were there at the top of the hour, but in between there was a lot of material that, in the context of thousands of deaths and imminent nuclear meltdown, could only seem banal.

ABC insiders today are admitting that Saturday was not good. Part of the problem — but surely not a sufficient excuse — was the limit in the amount of BBC footage it can use. There is a quota, and it was quickly eaten up.

The Japanese network NHK was also, understandably given what they were facing, not providing much new footage.

By Sunday, ABC24 had recovered. The coverage was much better, and back to Friday night levels of quality. Perhaps somebody hit the telephone and ordered changes.

Criticism of the ABC, and News 24 in particular, from News Limited faces must always be taken in context, and the current backdrop is that tenders will close shortly for the Australia Network contract, which SkyNews is attempting to take off the ABC. SkyNews, remember, is one-third owned by BSkyB, which is controlled by News Corporation, and probably soon to be 100% owned by them.

But that doesn’t dispose of the issue. ABC 24 should have done better. And it’s not the first time there have been problems with breaking news. Someone needs to be given the authority, and the brief, to take risks and make unilateral decisions when big stories break. Yes, the coverage may be repetitive. Yes, there are limitations. But the viewers understand and expect that. What they want is to know all that can be known at that moment. That is what 24-hour news means.

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21 thoughts on “How ABC News 24 lost pace with news from Japan

  1. franksting

    Nail on the head there Margaret with your reference to ditching schedules.

    I love the idea of the News24 service, but as I’ve said many times before, they’ve been found out for their rigour with this too often lately. I gave up on them during #qldfloods and Egypt and switched to Sky News, the BBC, CNN and most importantly Al Jazeera.

    They’ve pretty much lost me, perhaps my high hopes were too high

  2. Sir Lunchalot

    I have to say ABC 24 has gone downhill since the start. They have no content and rely on live feeds from other networks and sit on the live feeds for too long.

    Its so far behind Sky News, that they are hardly in the same market

  3. C J

    The problem with ABC News 24 is that it is NOT a 24-hour news channel, it’s just a 24-hour channel run by the ABC NewsCaff department.

  4. David Thackrah

    ABC 24 is generally underwhelming. With access to many regional offices throughout Australia it continues to show the narrow band of repetitive headlines chosen by city placed editors. International news such as the earthquakes were poorly handled. Why was Joe sent to Cardwell when a presenter from Cairns could have completed the styory ?

  5. rossco

    The advantage Sky News has over ABC 24 is that it can multi-channel via the red button. It could, if it chose (I don’t know if it did) dedicate one of its channels to the earthquake/tsunami while continuing to cover other news elsewhere. I often use the red button to switch to the UK news channel for an alternative.

  6. TG

    This is becoming an unfortunate pattern at News 24. They will drop all regular programming to go to a press conference by any federal politician in which nothing of any importance is said, but fail utterly when real events that affect real people in the real world take place, deciding to stick with old repeats. Anything but federal politics seems to get substandard coverage, whether in Australia or overseas, especially on week-ends when they seem to be asleep at the wheel, either with no bulletins for hours on end or ones that just repeat the same few stories ad nauseam without any updates on developing events.

    Given their limited resources and restrictions on the use of BBC content, maybe they should consider teaming up with other underfunded public broadcasters, such as TVNZ and the CBC, to produce joint coverage of major world events. Together they could co-ordinate the sending of reporters so there would be more reporters in more places, telling a wider variety of stories. Similarly, they could alternate, depending on the time of day, where the combined rolling coverage was hosted from – there could be a few hours from Toronto, then a couple from Auckland, and then a few more from Sydney – that way they could avoid problems of individual networks having limited staff in their newsrooms at different times of the day and draw on a range of experts across several countries to interview to provide added perspective on the event.

  7. Lovard

    I was home sick Friday and watched most of the live coverage through the afternoon into the evening. Pretty much all the coverage was live from an NHK helicopter. The thing I found most interesting into the evening was that the most interesting (and devastating) parts of the live coverage was dropped for the repeats of footage. Another more annoying thing was the fact that the repeated NHK footage had the LIVE logo on the screen regardless of the fact it was clearly a replay of events earlier in the day.

    I understand the live coverage was pretty distressing and that some of it probably shouldn’t be replayed over and over again, but for those many who would have missed it live and for the lack of new material, rather than repeat the same parts, even repeating something different could be better?

    I noticed at some points SBS was showing the same NHK footage but with far better commentary and interviews into earthquake and tsunami experts.

    I really like ABC24, I don’t have access to payTV and my interweb connection can’t always keep up with live coverage on-line.

    I do think the ABC were let down by not having a suitable reporter on the ground (it is after all Tokyo not a remote part of Zaire) and perhaps underestimating the devastation about to unfold and hence not have expert commentary during or soon after the events unfolding.

    Similarly there were times when they would use BBC coverage for a while (which was great) then when it went back to ABC “live” coverage, they clearly hadn’t caught up with the new events the BBC had already covered.

    It’s probably a budget issue, but I’d have thought access to a correspondent in Tokyo wouldn’t be that difficult? If it is, I’d prefer it if (as TG said) they just teamed up or rebroadcast BBC, Al Jazeera or any one of the other international news broadcasters.

  8. Mike Jones

    ABC 24 – spelled M e d i o c r e …… at best W o e f u l ….. at other times

  9. baal

    What should ABC24 have done? What everyone else did – relay NHK World’s English language coverage (online at Meanwhile ABC Local Radio and NewsRadio had plenty of coverage.

  10. Cuppa

    Blog posts complaining about yesterday’s Onesiders on Their ABC:

    Pure Poison – Aunty, we have a problem

    The Political Sword – The Day News Limited Took Over Our ABC

    Larvatus Prodeo – Spotlight the Spin