ABC cuts Liberals

It’s as predictable as an Australian middle-order batting collapse. In the week that most of the mainstream ABC TV programs make their new season return to the prime-time schedule, the usual critics trundle out all their standard bleats.

Why was the summer lay-off so long? Where are the bold, innovative shows we should expect from our national broadcaster? What’s the new MD doing about Aunty’s legendary levels of waste, duplication and extravagance?

Well, blah, blah, blah (to borrow the title of one of Andrew Denton’s better shows before he decided to incorporate and become a bespectacled Michael Parkinson).

We’ve heard it all before.

There are plenty of useful criticisms that could be made about the output and management of the ABC, yet the press prefers to recycle their same old guff. Most of this is based on ignorance of the way the electronic media operate, and a parallel assumption that newspapers offer the only practical model of how a major media outlet should do its job.

As usual, Chris Mitchell leads the charge. In the media section of yesterday’s Australian, that paper’s former editor-in-chief waffles on and on about how the summer break for Q&A, Lateline and Four Corners meant that a few stories “are not covered as well as they would otherwise be”.

No suggestion from Mitchell, though, that the ABC’s funding should be increased by the amount it would take to keep those three programs in full production. (In fact, he’s usually the first to suggest the Aunty’s budget should be cut.)

[Rundle: how (and why) to save the ABC]

Mitchell then ignorantly suggests that during the vote count of the US presidential election ABC News Radio should have ditched their broadcast of Parliament and switched to a relay of ABC News 24.

It has obviously escaped his knowledge of the media that the ABC is required to broadcast the proceedings of federal Parliament by law. News Radio was primarily created to discharge that statutory duty and relieve the metro stations and Radio National of the task.

The other reflex, dog-eared criticisms of the ABC that surface at this time every year, concern the program slate. In The Sydney Morning Herald, Debi Enker contributed a column brimming with suggestions as to what Aunty should do to improve her television schedule.

Enker trots out all the familiar complaints: the ABC should be home to “prestigious local drama productions” (indeed it should, but the only drama they can now afford is acquired via co-production with commercial producers, which entails some inevitable loss of creative control); there are too many repeats of QI and Antiques Roadshow (maybe so, but Enker might be surprised to learn how popular they still are, despite their repetitions), etc.

Enker is, of course, entitled to these opinions and suggestions but the disappointing aspect of her wish list is how closely it confirms the view that the ABC’s core audience is a collection of middle-class, inner-city professionals who just want the national broadcaster to match their interests and prejudices.

She makes no mention, for example, of sport, a programming area in which ABC TV was once pre-eminent — and dominant — but is now reduced to almost nothing.

The broader context for all this carping is framed by two developments now creeping into view over the ABC’s horizon. One is genuinely significant; the other may seem important (at least to the press) but is, in truth, trivial.

Like just about every new managing director, Michelle Guthrie has foreshadowed a management re-organisation. As with her predecessors, she looks upon the ABC’s department-based structure as an outmoded system, ripe for reform. It must, to use the current trendy term, be “flattened”.

She should be careful. The history of restructures at the national broadcaster — stretching all the way back to a McKinsey study in the early 1970s — is hardly encouraging. The then-GM, Talbot Duckmanton, quietly dumped the McKinsey recommendations into a bottom drawer and let his troops keep making programs the way they’d been doing since 1932.

Brian Johns forced through his “One ABC” model, based on the bizarre belief that all broadcasting was of a kind, the divisions should be amalgamated and that the resulting forced marriages could then be managed equally well by radio or TV people. The experiment was soon abandoned, and cost most of the new multi-media executives their jobs.

Jonathan Shier tried to take the ABC in the opposite direction. He split the corporation into tiny fiefdoms (at least on paper), some of which had just one program strand to produce. Shier imploded and Aunty quietly returned to its traditional management structures.

[Sport and pop music? What it would mean for the ABC to reach 100% of Australians]

Interestingly, David Hill — a notoriously bull-in-a-china-shop MD — was smart enough to leave the main departments untouched, even though he was unabashedly interventionist in just about every other aspect of the ABC’s activities.

The unspoken truth about all these restructures is that their real purpose is to get rid of senior staff who don’t suit the new MD’s tastes. It is very difficult to dislodge long-serving ABC staff, but much easier to concoct a restructure and reorganise their jobs out of existence.

No doubt Guthrie and her new inner circle will characterise all this as an overdue realignment of priorities in response to our rapidly changing media environment, blah, blah, blah.

Grand-sounding new titles will be invented, lofty job descriptions promulgated. And the few actual program-makers still employed by the corporation will allow themselves a weary sigh before trudging back to the editing room.

Meanwhile, the press — always obsessed with “top job” name-check speculation — are now working themselves into a lather trying to guess who will be the next chair of the ABC after Jim Spigelman departs. This is a matter of little pith and even less moment.

The chair has no power, and very little influence. They are appointed at the prime minister’s pleasure, with all the consequent obligations and timidities that implies. Can you remember the last chair of the ABC who has confronted the government on a matter of principle? Try Sir Richard Boyer (1945-61).

Malcolm Turnbull could appoint the Yellow Wiggle to the big office at Ultimo and it would make not the slightest difference.

Peter Fray

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