Do the highlights of the federal government-commissioned report outlined in the Fairfax Media tabloids, sorry, compacts, this morning really “gut” the ABC, as claimed in the headline? Or are they a mixture of current practice in TV around the world (including Australia) that haven’t been fully explained by selective leaking?

It’s more of the latter. The report, written by former Seven West Media chief financial officer Peter Lewis, could save the ABC a lot of money and deliver it far more production flexibility and control. Some of the comments from the review into the ABC and SBS represent modern thinking among media companies, such as more use of rented and outsourced facilities, and buying programs from outside producers. Other suggestions include finding and creating new formats, drama ideas, and comedy programs that can last for a long time and generate income from sales and/or format fees, as Seven does.

According to Fairfax:

“There is ‘significant scope’ for savings through increased use of external production studios rather than filming television programs internally, the review finds … The ABC increasingly relies on programs purchased from the independent production sector, but still makes such signature programs as Spicks and Specks in-house … The ABC has traditionally had a ‘build and own it’ culture that is out of step with the modern media, the review says.”

It’s all very BBC and ITV and CBS and Fox. These big foreign networks certainly source much of their programming needs from both inside and outside their organisations, as does the ABC (Dr Blake’s Mysteries is one recent example and is the most successful Australian drama this year). SBS buys more from outside producers, such as the very successful local production Go Back To Where You Came From. ITV in the UK and the American networks produce programs for themselves and their rivals. Modern Family, seen here on Ten, is a Fox production broadcast on rival ABC in the US.

Lewis is looking for that kind of flexibility, not to “gut” the network. The ABC can follow Seven’s lead and use more outside staff for its in-house productions, with the creative teams being on-staff at the broadcaster. Seven does this by retaining the creative team of high-level producers, directors, writers. The remainder can be hired on what’s called a “run of show” basis, meaning that if the program is successful, the people remain employed. Once the program ends, they either leave or can try for jobs in new programs. The stars/hosts and performers on these programs are hired on a “run of show” basis or for one-off roles, so why not production staff?

The fear of many ABC insiders and others is that job losses would “gut” the ABC and cause it to lose TV know-how and experience. That’s poppycock. There are plenty of people at the ABC who would be employed in independent production companies because of their skills and knowledge of how the ABC likes its programs made.

The cost savings (so long as they are mostly retained by the ABC) could actually help the broadcaster invest in a slate of new ideas, both for TV, radio and online. Merging the ABC’s iView and SBS on Demand is a good idea — in fact, all the playback facilities of the commercial networks could be merged with the ABC’s highly successful iView to create an industry standard. The commercial TV networks know the ABC leads them in this area, which is one of the main weapons the sector has for fighting the streaming companies.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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