Four evenings a week, around 130,000 viewers tune in (or keep watching) after Lateline to watch ABC1’s The Business. Another 40,000 watch the show on ABC News 24, at least going on last week’s averages.

Those numbers, taken together, are more than twice as many as buy The Australian Financial Review, and certainly more than tune in to Sky News’ business channel. But The Business’ reporters don’t know if they’ll be returning next year. Their show is one of several facing the axe after as the government contemplates how much to cut from the ABC’s budget.

ABC management has said it won’t make a decision until the size of the cut is known, but the loss of funding is by no means the only reason the show is in trouble. The Business has operated on tenterhooks for almost all of its existence. It operates with the small staff of presenter Ticky Fullerton, joined by six journalists, three producers and a couple of editors. That’s well under the resourcing of a show like Lateline, but that small team is still a significant chunk of the ABC’s total business division. With The Business aired very late to a relatively small audience, whether it’s the best use of Aunty’s resources is an ongoing question.

It’s not easy doing day-to-day business coverage well on television. In fact, it’s a relatively new thing. While shows like Four Corners and 7.30 often focus on investigations of corporate wrongdoing, it was only in the 1990s onwards that even the commercial networks bothered with the day-to-day goings-on in business and the economy. The ABC didn’t have a regular economics correspondent in the early 1990s. “The weird thing about business journalism is that in most countries it gets an entire newspaper to itself, but in radio and television, it’s the poor cousin and always has been,” former ABC producer David Salter told Crikey.

But business broadcasting has flowered since then, especially on the ABC. In 1986, the ABC began airing a late-night show called the Carleton-Walsh Report. Fronted by Richard Carleton and financial journalist Max Walsh, “Carwash“, as some called it, devoted significant time to business along with politics. That period also included the hiring of reporters like Paul Barry, who boosted Four Corners’ corporate investigative coverage. The early 2000s brought another push into business for the network, when managing director Jonathan Shier secured extra funding for business programs and poached reporters like Emma Alberici, Mark Westfield and Ali Moore. But of the programs launched during this period, only The Business (which used to be Lateline Business) has survived, although that hasn’t been easy. In January 2012, Lateline Business was revamped into The Business following a review of the network’s business coverage, but there were questions even then about it continuing in its current form. The alternative mooted in the press was to move The Business onto News 24 channel, but the show hung on after a staff campaign reportedly stymied a plan to cut its resources.

The Business’ journalists have been given the impression the show they’re tied to is unlikely to get a second reprieve. Within Aunty, something of a philosophical battle is going on about whether business is best delivered through a dedicated television show, or by spreading out the ABC’s business journalists across different programs. It’s believed much of the ABC’s management leans towards the second view. And to be fair, so do some ABC business journalists who don’t work for the program, who lament the amount of resources given to The Business while other parts of the ABC’s business coverage make do with far less. Specialist programs suck up resources, while a journalist filing to different places, particularly for online, can cover far more in a single day.

On the other hand, The Business is the last TV show standing on the ABC’s premier channel, after the loss of Business Today and Alan Kohler’s Inside Business. Former head of ABC TV current affairs and news Peter Manning (and father of Crikey business editor Paddy) thinks the ABC does need a dedicated business show, even if it covers business well through its regular programs. But he questioned whether The Business had enough resources to do the job well. “If anything, The Business should be beefed up,” he told Crikey. Failing that, there might be other ways of doing business well without increasing resourcing. For example, ABC1 could air a weekly investigative business show instead. “You could move much of what gets aired on The Business into the nightly news, and focus on that investigative element instead. That might actually be cheaper.”

Manning also felt that the ABC wasn’t perhaps using its business talent as effectively as it could. “One of the ways the ABC could bulk up its business coverage would be to get one of its own people, rather than Alan Kohler, to do the nightly business reporting on ABC News. There’s no reason, when you’ve got people like [former SMH business editor] Ian Verrender and [veteran business reporter and editor] Peter Ryan, that the ABC should be outsourcing its business reporting on a nightly basis.”

If the ABC does stop airing a regular business show on its leading TV channel, Salter says that would be disappointing: “I think of all the free-to-air networks, the ABC probably has the largest percentage of loyal viewers with a genuine interest in business affairs. I’m not sure they’d be served by just news coverage and the odd piece on 7.30 or Lateline.

Peter Fray

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