In order to cope with the recently announced cuts to the ABC and SBS budgets, the Friday night state editions of the ABC’s 7.30 current affairs program are set to be cut. It’s been reported that as a “face-saving exercise”, local editions will be replaced by an extended 40-minute Sunday night state news broadcast. Some journalist staff will be retained, but savings are being sought by dismantling the fixed infrastructure and staff production costs. If the local editions of 7.30 are scrapped, what will actually be lost for the communities that the local editions service?
To get a sense of what these cuts will actually mean, we have carried out a brief analysis of all content from each of the separate local editions of 7.30 from January to June 2014.
Across the eight separate local editions of 7.30 there were 709 separate pieces of content produced, including features, hard news and studio-based interviews and discussions. The local editions are broadcast every Friday evening, but each local edition team has the capacity to produce extra or “extended” content that can be published through the ABC’s website. An appreciation of the journalistic output of each of the local editions should take into account the online material as this, too, will be lost when the local editions are cut.
There were 21 possible broadcast dates during the sample. Some local editions got bumped for whatever reason (such as Western Australia’s on May 23).
The South Australian edition produced 128 segments and stories of broadcast and online content, many more pieces of content compared to the mean average of 89. Part of the reason for this was the SA state election held mid-March, but as the below graph shows, SA consistently produced more content in each full month of production than any other local edition.
Beyond the sheer amount of journalistic output that shall be lost, an analysis of the data produces two slightly more complex insights. Each of the local editions of 7.30 serves as a way for local and state or territory politicians to engage with their constituencies in a forum designed for local or regional issues. Furthermore, it also provides the opportunity for backbenchers and others not normally in the national media cycle spotlight to engage with their communities. Each piece of content was coded based on whether the primary topic of the story belonged to a few large categories: local and social issues, culture and education, local and state politics, and federal politics.
Perhaps unsurprising is the number of pieces of content engaging with federal politics in the ACT 7.30 edition, as there were a number of stories about the impact of the federal budget on the public service. As we have already mentioned, South Australia had an election, hence its massive 37 pieces of content. The Northern Territory has the second largest count of local and state politics, primarily because of political conflict that triggered the resignation of indigenous members of the Country Liberal Party government.
When the number of pieces of content is equalised across the local editions, other patterns emerge that at least indicate there are significant differences in the way local audiences are serviced. The WA and NT editions have very little in the way of what we have coded cultural and education-topical content. This content includes anything on cultural activities or news, literature, arts, music and so on. It also includes anything that is presented as educating the audience, such as science communications type stories about recent research breakthroughs.
The ACT has nearly double the cultural and education-topical content compared to most of the other local editions, which is not surprising considering Canberra is known as a “gallery town” with a huge university population. That there is such a marked difference is interesting on its own, but what if we think about it in the context of specific local editions addressing the concerns and interests of its target audiences?
It seems very unlikely that a national news and current affairs program will be able to service the different compositions of interest that can be mapped over this six-month sample. With further detailed coding of the content, other patterns would emerge — particularly around indigenous communities, mining industry news and health issues.
Lastly, we know from various ratings and metrics figures (such as the quarterly multi-screen reports by Oztam) that viewers who still watch TV live are overwhelming older audiences. It is not surprising then that during his ABC cuts announcement Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull joked that he is a young viewer of the ABC, when the average age of ABC viewers is 61. Older viewers are broadcast television viewers, therefore when access to appropriate local news and current affairs is reduced, older viewers are disenfranchised.
All data on the local 7.30 editions used above is available here.