Confusion and dismay reigned at ABC television yesterday as staff digested the apparent shock axing of Big Ideas, a cheaply run lecture show few believed to be in the firing line. But even after the show’s cancellation was announced on its Facebook page and Twitter feed yesterday morning, some of those involved were still unclear on the show’s exact status. Host Waleed Aly told Crikey yesterday the only official comment he’d had from management was that no decision had been made. But others insist the show in its current form has been axed.

Big Ideas produced 172 hours of television a year on a shoestring budget, so the cuts associated with its closure are small. But several ABC staff have contacted Crikey to express their deep dismay about the manner of the show’s axing, which they say was sudden and occurred without consultation. Staff at the broadcaster say the decision to cut Big Ideas was announced in an email to those involved with its production sent at 6pm on Friday night. The show’s producers evidently believe this email means the show has been officially cancelled, and have been tweeting on the show’s official ABC account about the closure all morning.

But ABC director of television Richard Finlayson says final no decision has been made. The email staff refer to, he says, was a “standard note from the manager of the production pool to remind staff that their annual contracts were expiring on Nov 30”. He said talk of job cuts was thus inaccurate. “ABC TV has not yet finalised a decision regarding Big Ideas for 2015,” he said. “As is typical in television, the program is produced on an annual basis, on run-of-show staffing contracts. We are reviewing a range of options for continuation of the program, but unfortunately we aren’t in a position to confirm with staff what our plans are at this stage.”

But four of the show’s production staff expect their contracts won’t be renewed next year.

If the show is cancelled, its two most high-profile contributors would not leave the ABC. Executive producer Peter McEvoy is also the executive producer of Q&A, while Aly also hosts Radio National’s Drive. But it would mean those responsible for curating, shooting and producing the show would be out of work. One of these four staff believed to be in the firing line is series producer Jeune Pritchard, who at 70 years old is the ABC’s oldest producer and one of its longest-serving staff members. Asked about her employment status this morning, Pritchard told Crikey if the show were axed it wouldn’t mean retirement for her. “Now I have no excuse not to take up that PhD on Rwanda!” Pritchard covered the genocide there for Radio National in 1994.

The ABC staff who contacted Crikey yesterday were deeply upset by the way ABC has handled the matter. One said it was an “ugly precedent”. “My feeling is that it’s driven by budget cuts, but this isn’t how you let employees go at the ABC. It’s not the way it’s ever operated before. The lack of consultation is shameful.”  Another ABC staff member called the lack of warning and consultation about the show’s axing an act of “utter cowardice and bastardry”.

It’s understood ABC TV brass want to retain the brand through occasional programs, even if the weekly show is axed.

Like The Roast, which won’t be returning in 2015, few considered Big Ideas to be in the firing line, as it’s so cheap to make. The bulk of the program consists of airing lectures delivered at festivals, conferences, campaigns and town hall events throughout the country, bringing the best of Australia’s intellectual life to a wider audience. Most of the time, speeches are shot live and edited in-studio by the ABC, but occasionally, even this isn’t necessary, as professional-quality video is sometimes provided to the ABC by event organisers. A Radio National show also exists under the Big Ideas banner, but while the two shows sometimes share raw material, they operate separately for the most part. “It’s guerrilla TV — cheap and dirty,” one Aunty staffer mused. “But I guess it’s still not cheap nor dirty enough.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey