Mark Scott considers himself as a man that likes big bold ideas. His enthusiasm for “a friendly merger of ABC and SBS” was presented last month at the National Press Club as just such as big idea, in fact his legacy one. This idea however can been seen as either as a dangerous thought bubble or a magician’s sleight of hand to distract from where people should be looking.

But how can SBS, which is now dependent on advertising revenue, easily merge with the ABC, which is prohibited from this by legislation? Any such change would open the ABC up to the option of introducing advertising via the backdoor through a merger with SBS. The introduction of advertising on its domestic networks would fundamentally alter the distinctive role for the ABC as an independent media service and erode public support and confidence. It would also make it easier for future governments to reduce public funding, given they could argue the ABC should make up the shortfall through advertising. Is opening up this option seriously what Scott wants to leave as his big legacy idea?

Another option from a merger with the ABC would be for SBS to abandon advertising, thus depriving it of more than $70 million per year in revenue, an amount that is highly unlikely to be replaced with government funds.

The proposal for sharing back-office services, transmission and online infrastructure between the national broadcasters does have some substance. If these savings are real and bring benefit to both organisations, they could be achieved without the need for a merger.

The merger proposal is also backed by the assertion that SBS programming has become less distinctive, implying that the ABC has become more diverse. No real evidence is provided to back this claim. It would have been more accurate to say that SBS programming has changed a lot from its origins as a primarily foreign-language broadcaster. The fact that SBS TV is now broadcasting different types of programs that connect with audiences from second- and third-generation migrant communities is more a sign of a responsive broadcaster than that of failure.

The flipside of whether SBS is still distinctive, is whether the ABC has successfully embraced Australia’s diversity? The evidence is far more mixed on this front. ABC TV’s schedule is still cluttered with mediocre British dramas, a clear sign the ABC has yet to severe it umbilical chord to the BBC. For years, the ABC was subject to a one-sided production agreement with the BBC that forced them to accept lots of dross along with the best of British programs. Despite some more recent commissioning efforts, the ABC’s television schedule is still dominated by Anglo faces and nostalgic Australian stories.

The real concern for a merged ABC and SBS is that it would shut an alternative door to commissioning programs and embracing new ideas. Instead of giving program makers two doors to pitch their ideas and stories, there would be only one. This would narrow the diversity of programming, as commissioning editors can be fickle and narrow in their tastes. In recent years, SBS has been the pioneer in supporting and showcasing innovative dramas, comedies and documentaries, especially during fallow periods for programming on the ABC. Keeping two doors open is a far better recipe for innovation and success.

Let’s then examine the other thesis that Scott’s merger proposal is really a sleight of hand to distract our attention. Perhaps the real issue is that the ABC is running on empty, with rising costs and a funding base that is declining in real terms, set against the need to invest in expanding its digital services. Despite the claims of inefficiencies, there isn’t much more fat at the ABC without cutting into programming budgets and output. Scott’s tenure at the ABC must have worn him down having to preside over how to continually trim and finesse budgets just to keep the Corporation operating.

Scott has been incredibly successful in obtaining special purpose funding from the federal government for the ABC. This includes the grant funding for its Asian television service, news and regional programming and education services. He deserves recognition as being the first Managing Director in a long time to obtain such largesse from what are normally hostile political masters. The only problem with special purpose funding is that it eventually runs out and is not part of the core ongoing funding base.

This means that the ABC now has no long term solution to this slow and debilitating squeeze on its budget. It is perhaps only natural that Scott would start to look longingly at the SBS as a means of freeing up extra funds. Despite the problems of such a merger being well known, Scott has chosen to mark SBS as the target for future savings rather the ABC. The debate is now framed around how SBS could migrate onto the ABC’s infrastructure and systems and a merger can only be interpreted as a means to give the ABC control over what and where to cut.

*Read the rest at The Mandarin

Peter Fray

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