The Tasmanian government and unions have called on the ABC to introduce BBC-style regional TV production quotas in submissions to a Senate inquiry probing Aunty’s representation of regional Australia.

But the public broadcaster argues its investment outside New South Wales and Victoria is at an all-time high, and that it’s unreasonable to expect the ABC to maintain far-flung production hubs without a major funding boost.

The inquiry was sparked by criticism — including from communications minister Stephen Conroy — of the ABC’s decision to axe its Tasmanian TV production unit, leading to the loss of up to 16 jobs. It comes at a crucial time for ABC boss Mark Scott given Aunty’s next three-year funding package is due to be announced in the May budget.

It its submission, one of 59 received so far, the ABC fires back at critics of its Tassie axing, arguing its Apple Isle TV production unit delivered a poor return for taxpayer investment. Auction Room — which has not been re-commissioned this year — was the only show produced by the Tasmanian production unit last year:

“Such a high investment in labour and small amount of free cash limit flexibility, restrict the types of production that could occur … and required the ABC to find ways of ‘filling the asset’ (ie, finding work for staff to carry out rather than letting demand drive resourcing).

“This inefficiency in expenditure meant a poor return on investment from the production unit, compared to the amount of production which could be leveraged from the existing budget through external production methods.”

Aunty argues tough decisions are needed as it has experienced a 23% decline in real-term funding since 1985.

The ABC also shoots down the argument that scrapping remote production units leads to a decline in regional stories. Although Auction Room was produced in Tassie, not one story was filmed there in its most recent season:

“The charter of the ABC does not require it to maintain an internal production capacity in every state and territory … The presence or otherwise of a production unit in a particular area does not guarantee the creation of content relevant to that area.”

The ABC claims its investment in TV production outside of Sydney and Melbourne has, in fact, been increasing over recent years through partnerships with the independent sector.

According to the ABC, Aunty commissioned 240 programs — including sports broadcasts — outside of NSW and Victoria between 2007 and 2012. The total production budgets outside of NSW and Victoria have remained steady and peaked last year at $47 million.

However, the Tasmanian government argues in its submission that current ABC programming is too Melbourne and Sydney-centric and offers little to regional viewers. The Tasmanian Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts writes:

“Unless there is a concerted commitment on behalf of the ABC to change this status quo, it is likely that the growing push towards centralisation will lead to a growing disenchantment with the ABC, particularly in the regions.”

The Giddings government wants the ABC to follow the lead of the BBC, which has a quota system to ensure around half of all the Beeb’s TV programs are made outside of London. The Community and Public Sector Union, which represents ABC workers, also calls for local TV production quotas in its submission and wants a financial audit of regional spending over the most recent two funding periods.

In its submission, Aunty stresses its commitment to South Australia, where it has launched a frenzy of architecture p-rn programs. The ABC is currently producing Dream Build, similar to The Block, and an Aussie remake of the BBC series Restoration Home which follows home owners as they modernise crumbling houses.

But it’s silent on the exact percentage of ABC programs — not including sport and news — that are made in-house. Scott can expect to be grilled on this point when called before the Senate next month.

Peter Fray

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