Seven years ago Kim Dalton inherited a single ABC TV broadcast platform and a drama production unit largely sitting on its hands. The broadcaster’s TV chief quit yesterday as the controller of five digital broadcast channels and a burgeoning on-demand service, with ratings and local content both up.

Since his appointment in 2006, Dalton has fought relentlessly, and successfully, to boost the amount of Australian drama on our screens. Most importantly, he’s managed to get the dough to do it — both by cutting costs and prising more money out of Canberra. Even if many inside the ABC decry the outsourcing of production to independent producers.

Aunty now airs over 70 hours of Australian-made drama a year, up from around 10 when he took over.

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“ABC TV is leaner, more efficient and more productive about how we go about producing our TV programs,” Dalton told Crikey in his first interview since announcing his departure. “When I was appointed I was running a single channel. At the time we were underfunded, particularly in the area of Australian drama. ABC TV was quite inward looking in terms of its relationships with the broader creative community … Now we have five TV channels, the best on-demand service in iView and we are much better funded in terms of drama.”

Yet Dalton has no shortage of critics. Under his watch the ABC has increasingly become a commissioner, rather than creator, of content. TV production has been largely outsourced to the private sector or centralised in Sydney and Melbourne — a trend epitomised by the recent decision to axe the ABC’s TV production unit in Tasmania.

While praising Dalton as a “passionate advocate” for local content, the ABC’s staff-elected director-in-waiting Matt Peacock criticises him for weakening the ABC’s ability to make programs independently.

“He slashed and burnt ABC in-house production and diverted most production work to the private sector,” Peacock told Crikey. “Along the way the public have lost the much-loved Natural History Unit and programs like Spicks and Specks and The New Inventors.

“His departure is a great opportunity for the national broadcaster to audit its production model, which has social as well as economic imperatives, to reverse this outsourcing slide … To keep its independence the ABC regional and national production centres must maintain a critical mass of skills to mount their own productions. Otherwise, the national broadcaster will become a hollow husk, a commissioning agency at the mercy of funding agencies and a small group of commercial operations.”

Dalton, a former head of the Australian Film Commission, counters that the ABC is not the font of all good ideas. Outsourcing, he says, allows the broadcaster to make more original content while spending less.

“I’m not a stranger to controversy and I don’t shy away from it,” he said. “I stand by what I’ve done and I’m happy to be judged by the results.”

As well as boosting indigenous storytelling — through programs such as telemovie Mabo and recent series Redfern Now — Dalton says he’s especially proud of pushing the ABC into Australian crime and improving its children’s programming. When it comes to factual content, The Gruen Transfer and Q&A stand out as two of Dalton’s biggest triumphs.

“Kim’s support for ideas, creativity and innovation has been the real strength of his time as director of ABC TV,” said Q&A executive producer Peter McEvoy. “Kim saw the need for ABC TV to have a strong forum for political discussion. He commissioned me to create the program and then gave me the freedom to experiment and develop the project and the support to see my ideas realised. That’s strong creative leadership and he’ll be hard to replace.”

A high-profile ABC news and current affairs veteran was less effusive, telling Crikey the ABC’s documentary output has been “pissweak in the last few years — very soft and fluffy”: “SBS has had Go Back to Where You Came From; why haven’t we had stuff like that?”

The answer, Dalton said, comes back to money: “Funding for documentaries has been pretty much static for five to six years.”

In 2009, Dalton helped convince the government to give the ABC a funding boost of $70 million for Australian drama. The next triennial funding package will be announced in the 2013 budget.

“The big issue for ABC funding is getting reasonable levels of Australian content on ABC2. I think the level of Australian content on ABC2 is far too low,” he said. Drama on that channel could be used to take risks, introduce viewers to new talent and attract younger viewers, he says.

Dalton will step down in February but remain on for the next 12 months in a consulting role. “If you stay too long you end up having to repeat [yourself] or go into maintenance mode and I’m afraid that’s not me,” he said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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