As an intern, thrown headlong into unglamorous but crucial drudgery, one tends to acquire by osmosis all manner of banal trivia and curiosa.

This mostly involves coffee preferences and food allergies, but it can extend to otherwise pointless technical ephemera … such as the cost and practicality of internet-based media delivery technologies.

Glen Frost’s suggestion that the ABC could withstand a 25% cut based on the cost of transmission is neat, plausible — and wrong. It’s also a fundamentally illogical way to bust the “myth” that the ABC needs more funding.

The ABC’s transmission costs of just under $200 million (2013 figures) are fully funded by the government, and regarded as non-discretionary. It’s highly unlikely that any savings in transmission would flow into base funding, of which only a proportion is programming. Government would snap that up in a jiffy.

While cuts to transmission costs won’t satisfy the ABC’s hunger for base funding, they might satisfy government bloodlust for broader cuts, which in turn may provide some form of moral protection for existing base funding.

But how much will Frost’s magic internet pixie dust help? Can it, as he suggests, cut 100% of the transmission costs, allowing a 25% cut to the ABC budget? Of course not.

As Big Bear (managing director Mark Scott) has stated, “there is no marginal cost in extra TV or radio viewers, but each extra online user does mean an additional cost”.

Let’s put some numbers on that. At $200 million per annum for transmission, an ABC “broadcast hour” costs about $22,800. That’s everything — multiple television channels, all of radio, across the entire country — regardless of the number of viewers or listeners. At iView quality, the ABC News/7.30 hour weighs in at 278 megabytes, or about a third of what you can fit on a CD-ROM. Based on Glenn Dyer’s TV ratings report for Monday, more than 1 million viewers watching that hour of television would require the transfer of 327 terabytes over the internet.

Pricing that is difficult. ABC uses the eye-wateringly expensive Akamai for content distribution, and those numbers are not publicly available. The ABC could spend big on its own data networks and peering, but that would come with all manner of additional costs.

For the purpose of this exercise, I’ll use the relatively inexpensive Amazon Web Services price for data transfer, as it’s publicly available and a handy competitive guide. At AWS prices, the online-only ABC News/7.30 hour would cost about $50,000, more than double the cost of broadcast transmission. You can double it again if you want a viewing experience approaching broadcast television quality.

Now, it’s true that not every hour of ABC television has more than 1 million viewers. But even an average of 100,000 viewers for every hour of the year, at iView quality, would cost double that of broadcast transmission.

What of Frost’s suggestion that the ABC put everything on YouTube? Google is an advertising company, not a charity. It may well be a more ferocious enemy of public broadcasting than Murdoch.

There are opportunities to cut the transmission costs of the ABC and SBS, but naive calls to put everything online don’t solve real problems for the ABC, the government, or most importantly, the audience.

As previous reviews have shown, the ABC operates with the efficiency of a marathon runner: it gets the job done, but is eating away at itself in the process.

If we want our ABC to be sustainably creative, innovative, and capable, it deserves more funding.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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