The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is advocating the putting off if its triennial funding round, which would normally begin with the budget next year.

Crikey has been told that ABC management, with the knowledge of the board, has suggested to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy that delaying consideration of triennial funding would suit the purposes of  the government and the national broadcaster.

The ABC’s director of communications, Mick Millett, yesterday said that the ABC did not wish to comment.

Several sources have told Crikey that the move came from ABC management, and is being favourably considered by Conroy.

Next year shaped as a nightmare year in which to be seeking more funding, with the government committed to returning to surplus and many claims on the public purse. Meanwhile, the ABC has spread itself increasingly thin, offering content on more and more platforms and establishing services such as ABCNews24 on the smell of an oily rag.

The allocation of resources within the organisation is increasingly hotly contested.

I understand the idea of a delayed funding round for the ABC is being “bounced around” inside government. An unanswered question is what it would mean for the SBS, which has severe financial problems and is likely to be after a bail-out.

The justification used for the delay in deciding ABC funding for the next three years is the current Convergence Review, which has a wide brief to consider industry regulation in the light of the impact of new media.

It seems clear that the convergence review is likely to recommend the relaxation or removal of Australian content quotas on commercial free-to-air broadcasters, given that they are now competing with television delivered over the internet, which is free of such regulations.

This, both the public broadcasters are hoping, will open a window of opportunity for them to argue for more funding so they can commission more Australian content. Therefore, the argument goes, best to delay the funding round until after the Convergence Review’s work is complete.

In a speech delivered to the National Press Club at lunchtime today, Mark Scott quotes analysis released by Screen Australia last week, which shows that multichannelling has led to a significant dilution of the percentage of Australian content on free-to-air television. Says Scott: “Australian content has to be a key to the ABC’s offerings across all our television channels in the future.”

As a justification for the unprecedented move to delay triennial funding consideration, it has some merits. But the real truth is that it was becoming clear the ABC has Buckley’s chance of a favourable outcome if the big questions are considered in early 2012.

Scott’s address to the Press Club is largely a response to recent criticisms of the ABC, skating a line between sadness, defiance and a defensive tone.

Defending the decision to axe programs such as Art Nation, he denies the ABC is out to chase ratings, but talks about the “opportunity cost”.

“We have finite money and little means of raising more outside government appropriation. So we have to ask whether each program, the current schedule and the current mix, represents the best investment we can make to meet our charter and engage with audiences.

“If you think about nearly all your favourite television shows over the years, one of the things so many have in common is that they are no longer on the air. Programs will come and go.”

Scott begins his speech by talking of the ABC’s recent bereavements, with the deaths of Ian Carroll, Paul Lockyer, John Bean and Gary Ticehurst, and quotes one of his favourite poets, Auden. (Who also featured, ABC watchers will recall, in his landmark “end of Empire” speech that so riled the Murdoch organisation.)

This is the quote he is using today, setting a bleak atmosphere for his discussion of the ABC’s present and future.

They disappeared in the dead of winter …

What instruments we have agree.

The day of their deaths was a dark cold day.

The dead staff represented the best of the ABC, Scott says, before switching to talking about that old and outdated chestnut, the ABC charter and “how we think through the role of the public broadcaster in this fast-changing and converging media landscape”.

Scott quotes a recent Essential Media report that found that 71% people trust the ABC’s television news, and that trust was rising. Meanwhile, only 48% said they trusted news on commercial television.

Scott defends the decision to create ABCNews24, despite not being funded to do so. The service now has 3.1 million viewers, he says, up from 2.3 million in late 2010. Nearly 20% of the audience is aged 25-39.

But he also makes some admissions.

“Not for a moment am I suggesting it has all been perfect. There have been some difficult days and miserable hours on air. And if that surprises you, welcome to the media and welcome to journalism. Perfection in execution belongs only to the Lord and in the minds of a handful of media practitioners.

“I can assure you no one was tougher on our performance at these times than the ABC News team itself.”

The ABC, he says, has to change.

“A trap for a highly-scrutinised organisation like the ABC, which has a capacity to be risk-averse in decision-making and with some organisational leanings towards the status quo, is to avoid change. There is often less immediate trouble that way.

“But in a time like this, when technology is changing the media business for organisations and the consumption opportunities for audiences, a failure to change could represent real risk to the ABC.”

On the issue of outsourcing production, Scott makes clear that it will continue. He talks of “painful organisational change” with some jobs gone and others created.

“At the ABC, we want to reflect the nation to the nation. But it does not automatically follow that in order to do this, the ABC has to be the creator of that television everywhere … Amongst other things, we need to be conscious of the costs of owning and staffing large studios to deliver productions in all parts of the country. The internal production model works best when there is a high volume of production — keeping the studios busy and the staff fully utilised. Operating at lower levels of capacity can mean that programs that should be quite inexpensive to make end up being expensive, because of the high fixed costs.”

The ABC, he says, will continue under a mixed model.

There is presently a review of the production mix within the ABC — and although Scott understandably does not refer to it, there is no secret that this is extremely hotly contested territory internally.

It all adds up to a worrying picture. The need for more funding to support the ABC’s ever more thinly spread presence is urgent, yet the outlook is not rosy.

The next five years of Scott’s term as managing director are clearly going to be more difficult than the first five.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey