The ABC is likely to join the commercial networks by scaling back its presence in the national tally room in Canberra on election night, raising fresh concerns about the future viability of the democratic icon.
The Australian reports today that Seven and Nine will ditch the tally room in favour of broadcasting from their Sydney studios — a decision set to save the networks $500,000 each. Although a final decision hasn’t been made, sources tell Crikey the public broadcaster’s election night panel is likely to be based in ABC studios and will feature live crosses to the tally room.
ABC election analyst Antony Green told Crikey the tally room — famous for its 35 by seven-metre board showing rolling polling results — had passed its used-by-date in the internet age.
“My personal view and advice is they should do it from the studio,” Green said. “It’s a complete waste of time to go to the tally room … The ABC has broadcast the last several state elections without being in the tally room, and it’s technically much easier to do. There are things you can do in a studio you can’t do in the tally room with big-screen technology, with lights, with audio.”
The star psephologist describes the tally room as a “hallucination — this magical idea that something important is happening when it’s actually just a shed”.
No vote counting takes place in the tally room, based at Exhibition Park in Canberra’s northern suburbs — it exists only to display results.
An ABC spokesperson told Crikey: “The ABC will still have a presence in the tally room. The details of our broadcast are still being determined.”
The last prime minister to the tally room was Bob Hawke in 1983, and most politicians prefer to be in their home cities on election night.
Green said it would be easier for the ABC to secure political talent by broadcasting from its studios in Sydney or Melbourne: “There are no politicians in Canberra except those who are there to be in the tally room.”
Channel Seven news director Rob Raschke told Crikey it was a “simple decision” to abandon the tally room.
“It’s a complete dinosaur — the AEC website is miles ahead of what’s up on the board,” Raschke said. “It costs us a phenomenal amount of money. To the viewer at home, does it make much of a difference if we are in the tally room? I’d say no. Is it worth spending half a million on? Absolutely not. In these times, I’d rather spend that money retaining my staff.”
After the 2007 election, the Australian Electoral Commission argued for an end to the National Tally Room, which costs taxpayers more than $1 million at each each election. The free TV lobby argued against the tally room being scrapped and the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended that the NTR be retained for future federal elections because it promoted “a visible symbolism of transparency in the election process”.
A spokesperson for the Australian Electoral Commission told Crikey:
“The AEC will continue to provide the NTR on election night as long as funding and significant stakeholder support for it continues. The AEC recognises that while the NTR is no longer essential for the widespread dissemination of election results; its historical role means that, for some, it is an important symbol for some of the fair, free and transparent conduct of elections.”