New ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has “resisted the temptation” to use her first major speech since coming to the position three months ago to lay out a new “masterplan” for the network, instead speaking on the broadcaster’s perennial challenge of remaining relevant to all the Australian population, 30% of which does not view its content.

Speaking at a conference on creativity in business organised by The Australian  (the newspaper “obtained” an extract of the speech before anyone else) and introduced by none other than noted ABC critic Chris Kenny, the former News Corp exec highlighted the fact that 86% of people thought the ABC provided a valuable community service, according to ABC-commissioned polling, with 49% saying it provided a “very valuable” service.

Guthrie dismissed views that the ABC was “safe” from the commercial and technological pressures requiring massive change from the rest of the media sector:

“There is a perception in some circles that the ABC is lucky, that its funding model, built on public funds, provides it with a safe haven within a very disruptive media landscape …

“[I] dispute the notion that the ABC is in any way ‘safe’.  My experience across a range of organisations here and overseas is that no one is protected in this volatile environment.  Neither competitors nor customers will give any company a pass to longevity.”

And anyway, she said, in this time of great change, the ABC was valuable to the media sector as well as the broader community — it served as an R&D lab for the broader industry, “pushing boundaries and explore audience and distribution opportunities without the need to immediately monetise those initiatives”.

Guthrie said the ABC had to be available in every way people might want to watch it.

“The idea that the customer has to come and find you and must play solely within your boundaries is now obsolete.  Consumers want a seamless, networked universe.

“If they go to Netflix, why shouldn’t they find ABC content?

“Or if they go to a Fairfax or News Corp site for example, why can’t they log in with Facebook?

“My daughters refuse to visit 10 separate destinations for all the entertainment and information they want. They want to be entertained, but do not want be told that they must queue up at a particular location, or at a particular time, to enjoy the experience being advertised.”

Making the ABC more widely available would perhaps require greater links with commercial media organisations, a fact Guthrie also addressed. “Partnering also offers potential new revenue streams to fund new content investment — welcome after recent years of declining retail returns and government funding,” she said, hastening to add that this would only be done in accordance with the ABC’s legislative obligations and community expectations.

The ABC already derives a considerable amount of revenue from commercial activities and partnerships — in 2014-15, 15.1% of the ABC’s total revenues came were “own-sourced income”, the result of its events division, its publishing arm, and sales of ABC-produced content direct to the public and to streaming services like Netflix and Presto.

Peter Fray

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