The Convergence Review is mostly good for what we might call “the commons” of media — that part of the sector that relies not on flogging ads or subscriptions, but on the taxpayer and the support of the community.
The report gives non-commercial media, including the ABC, SBS and community broadcasters, a nice deal on spectrum, the suggestion of access to more money, and a pat on the back for doing a good job.
It could have turned out very differently. Submissions by the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA) and Foxtel reprised the arguments those bodies have been making for some time: that the ABC and SBS should not drain the taxpayers’ purse to provide content that competes with the private sector.
Had those arguments been accepted, the ABC and SBS might have seen recommendations for their charters to be radically revised and their role limited. Goodbye popular drama, for example. Farewell ABC News 24 because there is Sky News. Goodbye The Drum, because there are blogs (and Crikey). And so on.
But the Convergence Review firmly rejected that approach. The public broadcasters, it said, should continue to provide content for niche and general audiences.
What arguments are there for taxpayer-funded broadcasting in the modern media age? The review offers two: first, innovation:
“Both [SBS and the ABC] have led the way in developing a number of new services … However, these activities are not referred to in their charters.”
Second, public trust, particularly when it comes to the ABC and news content. The Convergence Review notes, as Ray Finkelstein did in his report, that the ABC news brand is highly trusted — the most trusted of any news media outlet by a country mile. Surveys show 67% of respondents trust ABC radio news and current affairs (compared with 33% for commercial radio talkback, and 52% for local newspapers).
The original justification for the ABC was the provision of quality content when such stuff was scarce. In the age of media plenty, the Convergence Review casts the modern justification as being about standards, particularly in journalism, and the capacity for innovation. But it didn’t all go the ABC’s and SBS’ way.
Both, if the Convergence Review recommendations are accepted, will have to meet Australian content quotas, which they opposed on the grounds that it was contrary to their independence to have parliament dictate how their budgetary allocation should be spent.
A pretty weak argument, you might think, when the ABC in particular has been taking “tagged” funding for delivery of particular services for some time now. And the review gave the argument short shrift.
The ABC should have to carry 55% of Australian content, the same as commercial free-to-air broadcasters, the review said. Because of its multicultural remit, the SBS should escape with a lower quota, of 27.5%.
All very well at the moment, with telemovies about Mabo and Phrynne Fisher’s Murder Mysteries rolling off the block at the ABC, but a few years ago these quotas would have caused the ABC great embarrassment, because it would have fallen way, way short of them. And SBS, at the moment, is very cash-strapped indeed, and has acknowledged that this will mean less local content.
This is the context in which the ABC chose to persuade the government to put off its triennial funding round decision this year — the year of the horror surplus budget. Managing director Mark Scott judged it would have a more favourable breeze the next time around, and that the Convergence Review recommendations might help with the ask.
The SBS has no such luxury, though, because it needs an urgent bail out from government. The Convergence Review quota recommendation, if adopted, place pressure not only on the broadcasters, but also on government to provide funding. And who knows how that will work out.
Interestingly, the Convergence Review makes no comment on whether the ABC and SBS should be, well, converging. There is nothing here on proposals for more co-operation at the “back end” of public broadcasting, and no talk of merger.
The Convergence Review recommended that the charters of SBS and the ABC be updated to reflect the fact that so much of what they do these days is online, and innovative, rather than “broadcasting’ in the strict sense of the word.
The idea that the charters need updating is pretty inarguable, but has not been a top priority for the ABC and SBS, not least because they fear that once that can of worms is opened, there will be pressure for a wholesale debate on the role of taxpayer-supported broadcasting in an age of media plenty. That’s a fight they would rather not have. Indeed, the Friends of the ABC — who are not always all that friendly — argued for the charters to remain untouched.
The Convergence Review has taken a middle course, but made it pretty clear it is thinking a tweak rather than a wholesale rewrite of the charters.
Finally, community broadcasting gets a comprehensive pat on the back for adding diversity, and encouraging participation. There is recommendation for a National Indigenous Television Service to get adequate government support and spectrum — though the details of what that might mean in dollar terms are not spelt out. Community television should get access to the new digital multiplex as a matter of priority, the review says.
And there is a chimera of more money. Community broadcasters will, if the review report is implemented, be able to apply to the planned new content production fund for money to fund innovative services.
All in all, this is a package the public broadcasters and community broadcasters should be reasonably happy about. But the imposition of local content quotas should cause the ABC some anxiety about how it would cut its cloth if government funding for Australian content isn’t forthcoming when it next fronts up for the triennial ask in 2013.