The axing of Sunday morning ABC panel show Inside Business, announced earlier this week, means there will be no standalone weekend business program on the public broadcaster for the first time in over a decade. But few tears are being shed by ABC journalists about the demise of the program in its current form.

Inside Business, launched in 2002, was the brainchild of former Age and Australian Financial Review editor Alan Kohler, and he has hosted the program ever since. Kohler was already presenting a finance report for ABC News when the show launched, but an ABC veteran says Inside Business was regarded as “outsourced” from day one.

Kohler was an AFR columnist when the show debuted, then went on to create his own Eureka Report and Business Spectator websites. There’s no doubt Kohler’s ABC role gave the sites added cachet, and proved a handy selling point with advertisers. This rankled ABC purists opposed to the merest hint of commercialisation. Kohler’s presence became even more contentious when he sold his sites to News Corporation last year and became an employee of both the ABC and News Corp.

Following a 2011 review into the ABC’s business coverage, Inside Business dropped its magazine-style format and became a panel program. The move — originally opposed by Kohler — meant no more feature or news stories. At the time, it was seen as a cost-cutting measure — in hindsight, it was the beginning of the end. “It just became Kohler talking to his mates,” said one news insider; “It was soft-cock stuff,” said another.

There was another problem. As well as hosting Inside Business, Kohler runs two websites, writes three columns a week and presents the ABC finance slot on weeknights. Because of his hectic schedule, the show was recorded in Melbourne on Friday before airing on Sunday morning. The ABC was keen to air the show live, but Kohler insisted it was his only day off and refused to budge. This restricted the show’s ability to be up-to-date — a limitation that became more obvious when Channel Nine launched a live show, Australian Financial Review Sunday, in the same timeslot. AFR Sunday outrates Inside Business most weeks.

Kohler told the ABC two weeks ago that he would step down next year, citing exhaustion from his heavy workload and a need for more time off. ABC current affairs boss Bruce Belsham then decided not to renew the program. This leaves The Business, which airs Monday-Thursday at 11pm, as the only standalone business show on the ABC’s main channel — ABC News 24 airs Business Today on weekdays. The Business, hosted by Ticky Fullerton, rates around 180,000 across both channels, similar to Inside Business.

“We’ve got skinny resources across the rest of the weekday business coverage and we need a sensible play in terms of online,” Belsham said earlier this week.

An ABC news veteran said: “It’s not a major loss to have the Kohler program go [but] it’s disappointing the ABC has given up its presence on a Sunday morning.

“Has this set a precedent where when an ABC personality retires you close down the whole program? It says a lot about a lack of succession planning … No one has explained why someone else couldn’t do it, why the show couldn’t be revamped or why you couldn’t do it out of Sydney where most of the business staff are.”

“With no new business show slated for next year, the big question is what happens in 2015.”

Another ABC insider said: “Overall it won’t have much of an impact. But cosmetically, it’s not a good look when you shut down a business program and don’t replace it.”

There’s no doubt Kohler was hard to replace: no other business journalist has as high a profile, commands the same respect among top CEOs, and has the same ability to make dry topics entertaining.

Inside Business was not an expensive show to produce — it had only 1.5 full-time staffers plus Kohler — so scrapping it won’t add much to the ABC budget. Belsham has promised that all savings will be redirected to business coverage. The first beneficiary will be The Business, which will get a resources boost in Melbourne.

With no new business show slated for next year, the big question is what happens in 2015. Some in the ABC hope a new, improved Sunday morning business show will rise from the ashes. Others want any savings to fund more full-time reporting positions.

How to cover business has been a long-running debate within the ABC — especially the question of how many resources to devote to specialist programs versus mainstream programming. Some are opposed to the “ghettoisation” of business reporting into low-rating slots, and would like to see more focus on investigating corporate skulduggery. “The specialist programs are very resource-hungry and you have to ask about what bang for you get for your buck,” an Aunty veteran said. Thanks to a $10 million funding boost earlier this year, the ABC created a national reporting team including positions for finance, resources and consumer affairs.

The ABC’s last major push into business reporting was in the early 2000s, when Jonathan Shier lobbied the Howard government for more funding for business programs. This allowed the ABC to poach business reporters — including Emma Alberici, Mark Westfield and Ali Moore — and to launch new programs Inside Business and Business Breakfast. The latter, hosted by Alberici, was closed within a year. In 2006, the ABC used the Shier money to launch Lateline Business (now The Business) and hire former AFR reporter Sheryle Bagwell as Radio National Breakfast’s business editor.

“To have a full-time position at RN for business is an amazing achievement,” Bagwell said, noting Treasurer Joe Hockey is a devotee of the program. “The view the ABC doesn’t care about business is crazy; it’s constantly looking at ways to beef up business coverage.”

There’s one thing everyone agrees on. With Fairfax laying off reporters from The AFR and BusinessDay, the need for comprehensive, well-resourced business reporting at the ABC has never been so important.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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