The debate surrounding possible cuts to the ABC’s budget has firmly entrenched myths on both sides. It’s time to bust some of them wide open.
Myth 1: It’s your ABC.
No, it’s not.
Federal politicians own the ABC. Direct funding of the ABC has a serious downside; the mob in Canberra see the ABC as their channel to the people. Pollies are worried about the hyper-frantic 24-7 news cycle, which they can’t control, especially the bloggers and activists (WikiLeaks et al); in comparison, the ABC is safe and reasonable. Plus, there’s a huge chunk of Australia who only watch ABC news, so if pollies aren’t on the ABC, they’re not getting their message into the minds of consumers (voters).
Myth 2: The Liberal government wants to privatise the ABC.
No. The ABC will never be privatised because a privately owned broadcaster would never allocate the number of hours to covering federal politics that the ABC currently allocates. No commercial proprietor would devote that many hours to content that doesn’t generate ratings.
Myth 3: ABC drama is fair and balanced.
No, there’s too much BBC programming, and the Aussie content is derived from a narrow gene pool of in-house and external suppliers. The ABC is run by a clique of decision-makers with limited transparency. Occasionally we see what the ABC can and should be, and this makes us proud. Redfern Now is an example.
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Myth 4: SBS is a good idea.
No. Having a separate TV service for “ethnics” has created an entrenched system of public sector TV apartheid. The SBS was a political fix to solve a problem, namely, that not enough information was getting to the ESL (English as second language) communities, or “ethnics”, as many Aussies still call this section of the community.
The segregation of government-funded TV into “dominant culture” ABC and “ethnic” SBS is a de facto broadcast apartheid. This damages our culture as it prevents us from holding a (metaphorical) mirror up to ourselves and taking a good look at what we see.
Myth 5: The ABC needs more government funding.
No. Just like the car industry, the media industry has been protected for years. Then the internet arrived and trashed this cosy arrangement. Market share is being won by foreign-owned media platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and LinkedIn. As Thatcher said: “You can’t buck the markets.”
Terrestrial TV viewing is stagnant, but TV on the web is booming. The top 100 YouTube videos have been watched 4.4 billion times. YouTube is a free distribution service. The ABC pays over $200 million a year for distribution and transmission. In the long term it would be cheaper to put all the ABC (and SBS) content on YouTube and ABC iView, and make sure everyone’s connected to the National Broadband Network. The government can cut ABC/SBS funding by 25% if the ABC changes their distribution and transmission strategy to web/IP-based delivery technologies. Studios and equipment can also be privatised.
Myth 6: ABC news is vital to the nation.
This depends entirely on your definition. No, it isn’t, if you think of news as an economic commodity in a mature market. As Eric Beecher and the Institute of Public Affairs say, we already have too much choice.
Yes it is, if you think a key role of the media is to hold governments to account, and private sector players can’t or won’t. Occasionally the ABC has a very public run-in with a minister about perceived bias. Two examples stand out: ABC coverage of the Iraq War, and Australia spying on the Indonesians. The ABC was right both times.
This is why Aussies like the ABC — they keep the (political) bastards honest. Reminder: there were no WMD, children weren’t thrown overboard, human activity is changing the climate, we spy on the Indonesians, and the Yanks spy on us …
Myth 7: Mark Scott toes the government’s line.
Yes. The job of the ABC’s CEO is to steer Aunty in a straight line. As consolation, the job comes with a guarantee of a gong if you don’t mess it up. Current incumbent Mark Scott has struck gold with Kitchen Cabinet — a soft show that combines things ordinary TV viewers love (food) with things politicians love (themselves). Don’t mention The Chaser.
Myth 8: The Liberals will change the ABC.
No. There is no unity on the vision for the ABC within the Liberal-National Coalition.
The Libs discovered that a private sector CEO on his own can’t change the ABC. After the disaster of the Jonathan Shier years (nickname: “Shier-tollah”), Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull needs a clear strategy that keeps the Coalition happy — here it is:
- The ABC and SBS should merge: saves money on “back office” functions, and ensures we eliminate the de facto media apartheid of “Anglo TV” on ABC and “ethnic TV” on SBS. It’s time, comrades.
- The merged ABC-SBS should be split into two divisions: “content” and “delivery”. Content will have a clear brief to put 75% of drama out to public tender and host an AGM every year (tickets via an e-ballot), so the people who own the ABC can engage the decision-makers. Delivery will be tasked to radically cut costs. Some of the savings (e.g. 50%) can be used to hire journalists in regional areas and make programs about the bush (reality is, the Libs will need to buy off the Nats)
- No “lifers”: no one at the ABC should be in the same role for more than 10 years. The board can task the CEO to create succession plans for the talent and the C-suite.
* Glen Frost has worked for more than 25 years in the tech, broadcast and media sectors, including for Broadcast Australia, Telstra and PowerTel. He is the editor Edtech News.