Today, ABC chief Mark Scott and his executives begin their two-week tour of the country, visiting the staff they’ve sacked to explain the new ABC. Yesterday’s announcements, and what they revealed, amounted to a radical reorganisation of the ABC. But today Scott will start to get stuck into the detail. And in Adelaide, where he and TV boss Richard Finlayson addressed staff at 10.30am, a chilly reception awaited.

Scott told the assembled staff that it was no reflection on them that the Adelaide studios were being cut. He sang the praises of some locally produced shows, like the recent Countdown retrospective and The Cook and The Chef. But he also said the TV studios in Adelaide had been built in the 1950s — well  before satellites, in a period where every state produced three hours of television each night.

Coalition MPs are in the papers this morning accusing the ABC of using the cuts as a “smokescreen” to reform the organisation while blaming the government. While their criticism is self-serving, this view is widely shared within the ABC itself. In an fiery interview on ABC Adelaide Breakfast this morning, presenter David Bevan acknowledged that Scott had said South Australia wasn’t the victim of a “Sydney-centric agenda” — “But I don’t know anyone in this building who believes you.”

At ABC Adelaide, despite the long-held expectation that production there would be cut, the mood this morning remains one of shock and anger. Around 40 jobs will go from South Australia’s capital. But aside from head-count, the far more lasting change will be the final closure of all TV production outside of Melbourne and Sydney. The ABC used to produce TV shows everywhere — indeed, it was forced to when the Howard government allocated funding specifically for ABC regional production. This quarantined funding was not renewed under the Labor government, and so the ABC began closing down its widespread TV production network. First to go was Queensland, in 2007. Western Australian production followed in 2011, and Tasmanian production in 2012. Yesterday’s decision to end all production outside Sydney and Melbourne will affect staff in Adelaide and Perth.

Speaking to Senate estimates last week, Scott said the three Adelaide studios were not used to their full capacity, compared to those in Sydney and Melbourne. Staff in Adelaide have responded sceptically, telling Crikey the comparison is unfair, as the two of the three Adelaide studios aren’t fully fledged studios at all.

The largest studio (51B) is a “black box” with a “modest” lighting rig. It has no control room. As one staff member put it, “it’s just a quiet, darkened room to film in”. It doesn’t have permanent cameras — field cameras are brought in whenever filming in it is required. Because it’s so sparse, staff don’t understand why it couldn’t be maintained. The smallest studio (51C) is described as “no bigger than a suburban bedroom”. A “case of regional ingenuity”, it’s nothing but a room with black walls and some sound insulation.

The most traditional studio is the mid-sized one, 51A. It records 25 programs a week for most of the year, including two daily news bulletins and two Behind the News segments. It has a small control room.

On Adelaide radio this morning, Scott acknowledged the studios weren’t as high-tech as the ones in Melbourne and Sydney. They don’t have, for example, the ability to deal with studio audiences, he said.

But Scott said the ABC would still tell stories from Adelaide. “It’s an insular, ABC-view to say programs have to be made by people in this building,” Scott said, citing Anzac Girls as an example of great programming made with a production company in Adelaide. “But it doesn’t reflect South Australian stories,” the presenters piped in. Scott said other programming, however, did. In the interview, the two hosts accused Scott of going beyond the cuts in his decision-making, cutting things that couldn’t be easily built back up once they’d gone.

Local ABC staff in Adelaide told Crikey they were proud of their scrappy production studio and gutted to see it go. “Adelaide is a branch that gets dirt under its fingernails,” one said. “Its crews specialise in in-the-field filming, but they also do studio-based shows, too.”

An ABC spokesman told Crikey: “The decision to close television production was based on a business assessment as part of the drive for efficiency in the ABC and in response to significant cuts imposed on the ABC by the federal government. In that context it was not possible to maintain the facilities in Adelaide, however they are used, when production requirements can be met more cheaply and efficiently in Sydney and Melbourne.

“The ABC also recognises the value in working with the independent sector who have access to external funding such as Screen Australia and state-based funding bodies and will provide more regional diversity. (example, Mabo production filmed in Queensland). Mark Scott told staff today this was not a reflection of the work they have done on production in SA.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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