First Peppa Pig, now Lateline.

It seems nothing is safe from the government’s cuts to the ABC, with its management refusing to confirm the fate of some of its most iconic programming. Meanwhile, the producers of specific programs have been told their shows are under consideration for next year, and, pending budget cuts, might not be returning. Programs in the balance include Lateline, the state editions of 7.30, and the ABC’s last remaining business show, The Business. These cuts and the associated ABC budget cut being considered by the government would of course lead to job losses — the union operates on a rough formula gleaned from past experience that for every $1 million cut from the ABC budget, seven jobs are ended.

ABC spokesman Nick Leys stressed that nothing has been determined. “Until we know the size of our funding envelope, no decisions have been made,” he said this morning.

Nonetheless, the fact that such cuts to programs are being considered raises the pressure on Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has consistently stated that no cuts to programming are necessary for the ABC to operate on a lower cost-base.

“A public broadcaster can cut costs most readily simply by cancelling programs,” he told Crikey last month. To prevent the ABC cutting costs this way, former Seven CFO Peter Lewis was asked to conduct an efficiency study of the public broadcaster’s back-end operations. The government has no control over how the ABC spends its budget, but by pointing out specific suggestions, it can attempt to influence the organisation’s decision-making.

Cuts to programming are more likely to be noticed by the public, and therefore more politically costly for the government. Crikey asked the ABC whether it was leaving the fate of specific programs uncertain in order to generate a response from the public, but received no response on this point. But ABC insiders today were sceptical of the possibility that the specific cuts considered could be aimed at this.

Instead, several pointed to the managing director Mark Scott’s speech in Brisbane, which stressed the need to keep playing around with the ABC’s mix of content to meet the needs of tomorrow’s audiences.

Crikey understands that ABC brass do not view Lateline as a well-received show. Its scoops used to be dropped into the morning editions of the papers, but with deadlines creeping ever earlier in the day as newspaper companies save money by printing offsite, this no longer regularly occurs. Because of this, there’s a view that Lateline has lost impact and audience.

It’s not a view shared by many of the organisation’s staff. “When they told us Lateline was in the mix, it went crazy,” one staff member remarked to Crikey yesterday. “After all, Lateline is high-quality, original programming.” Significant fears also exist about the loss of the state-based 7.30 shows, which cover local affairs at great depth and focus. And after Alan Kohler’s Sunday morning Inside Business show ended last year, The Business is one of the few remaining places ABC viewers can go for daily business coverage. The cuts to these programs come as the ABC’s newer innovations, like iView and ABC News 24, appear to avoid serious cuts. Scott has talked up the broadcaster’s need to adapt to digital audience — 25% of the ABC’s traffic now comes from mobile devices.

Whether or not the proposed program cuts have been devised as a way to exact maximum political pain for a government considering deep cuts to the ABC budget, Liberal-associated spinner Toby Ralph says the ABC presents a problem for the government. “The budget cuts are tremendously deep and serious, and some big things will have to go,” he said.

This will be noticed by the public, even though most, Ralph suspects, have yet to really clue in to what’s happening to the ABC.

“The ABC is trusted and respected by 95% of people, while any government support is always around half that. If the broadcaster chooses to have a more evident public brawl there will be major injuries to both sides.  The government has got power over funding, but the ABC potentially has greater power over opinion. It remains to be seen if the ABC is prepared to drain their reservoir of goodwill in a sophisticated way.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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