What’s happening to the arts on the ABC?

Recent announcements have signalled wholesale cutbacks to cultural programming at the national broadcaster. First, there was a round of cuts in ABC television, with the decision to cut its dedicated arts program Art Nation. Then radio joined in, with an announcement that Radio National’s Artworks will be cancelled.

The arts community is dismayed. A group of prominent Australians — including Tim Winton, Nick Cave, Betty Churcher, Geoffrey Rush and Elizabeth Ann Macgregor — have written a letter to the ABC board claiming the cuts “will diminish the ABC’s irreplaceable role as the nation’s cultural memory”.

“This act of cultural vandalism will also seriously diminish the ABC’s role as the nation’s cultural archivist,” said Michael Shrimpton, a former head of ABC TV Arts and Entertainment. “The ABC is a chronicler of our greatest artistic achievements.”

Some may beg to differ with that particular statement, given the indifferent quality of some of the outside productions that have aired lately in the Tuesday night Artscape slot on ABC1. But there’s no doubt the ABC plays a crucial role in communicating and disseminating the arts in this country. The recent deal to screen a season of Opera Australia will be welcomed by opera fans, but it also replaces dedicated arts journalism and criticism with programming from a single artform, so in that sense the deal represents a loss of diversity.

There’s also the rather important issue of the ABC’s charter, which lists as one of the corporation’s three main functions the aim “to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia”.

The charter and the intentions of its framers are often squabbled over, almost in the manner of constitutional law. On a black letter reading, there is arguably no requirement for the ABC’s several book shows, literature not being a strictly performing art. But, thankfully, this has generally not been the way in which the ABC has interpreted it. Instead, the clause has been taken to mean all the arts, including new and experimental ones.

The charter is also used in elastic ways by the ABC itself. For instance, Triple J has long justified its on-air promotions spruiking for-profit music festivals such as the Big Day Out and Splendour in the Grass on the grounds that it is allowed by the charter. I’ve been supportive of Triple J’s commitment to contemporary music. But it’s also the case the network uses the charter as a justification for its promotional tie-ins, even as it has cancelled its dedicated arts programming.

At its best, for instance on shows such as Radio National’s Artworks, the ABC has not just encouraged and promoted the arts but taken an active role in the national debate about the arts and culture, including the forthcoming National Cultural Policy and aspects of the ABC’s arts coverage itself. This is why the death of Artworks will be felt so keenly. Amanda Smith is an outstanding presenter. Given how few professional arts journalists are left in this country, the decision to cut the program really is vandalism.

Triple J’s old Artery show, under Fenella Kernebone, was another example where the ABC managed to live up to the best interpretation of its charter. Not only was the program intelligent and insightful, it also presented new ideas and art practices to Triple J’s predominantly young audience. And then Triple J cancelled it. Kernebone has now had two arts shows cancelled during her short career at the broadcaster. It’s a dismal trend.

So what is the future? At the moment it looks bleak, whatever Mark Scott says. And unnecessarily so. The ABC has the resources to cover the arts intelligently and well if it wants to. Just look at how the news and current affairs division manages to churn out quality journalism day after day, even while introducing new services and embracing new platforms.

So here’s a mud map for the future. If Scott really wants to “do better” for the arts, perhaps he should consider reforming and restructuring the arts division inside the ABC. For a start, he could make arts programming genuinely cross-platform, freeing it up from the current silos to deliver arts content collaboratively across TV, radio and online. Then invest in new programming resources for high-quality arts journalists such as Amanda Smith and Fenella Kernebone. It’s madness that Kernebone or Smith could find themselves out of a job.

Thirdly, a strong managing producer needs to be found who would be willing to drive the many synergies available for arts programming across the ABC, including at local radio level and on Triple J. The ABC’s under-resourced online presence in arts content should be strengthened. And finally, the ABC should ask Stephen Conroy and the parliament to amend section 1(c) of the charter to include all the arts, not just the performing arts.

That shouldn’t be too hard now, should it? As Michael Shrimpton writes today in The Australian, “it’s about the service, stupid”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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