Today in Media Files, the ABC’s current affairs boss Bruce Belsham is retiring amid lagging ratings, and his boss, Michelle Guthrie, has demanded an apology for Roger Franklin’s Quadrant article, which wished the Manchester bomb had gone off at the ABC.

ABC current affairs boss leaves as ratings lag. Some big changes could be afoot at the ABC’s current affairs department, with boss Bruce Belsham announcing his retirement this morning, effective from the end of June. Belsham has been head of current affairs for five years, overseeing flagship television and radio programs including 7.30, Four Corners, Lateline, Foreign Correspondent, Australian Story, AM, PM, The World Today, Insiders and Offsiders.

In a statement from the ABC this morning, Belsham said the role had been rewarding, but “it is now time to move on from full-time management roles and pursue other projects”. News director Gaven Morris said the current affairs team was in “excellent shape and poised for significant future growth … in-depth and investigative journalism has never been more important, and from next week we’ll be seeking a replacement to fill Bruce’s sizeable shoes”.

But the ratings tell a different story — yes, many of these programs have done award-winning work, especially Four Corners, and Insiders is perhaps the best performed in ratings terms. But audiences have slipped for all. Foreign Correspondent’s figures weren’t helped by being cut back and moved to a later time slot on Tuesday nights, and Lateline has been buggered around the schedule as well. But the reality is that all these programs, bar Insiders and possibly Offsiders, have seen better times in terms of viewer numbers. Australian Story has lagged since foundation executive producer Deb Fleming retired in mid-2015. But 7.30 is a special case of ratings fatigue. Take last night, as one example, as 7.30 could only manage 512,000 viewers in the five metro markets, fewer than Ten News from 5pm to 6pm and 137,000 behind the 7pm part of Ten’s The Project. Now that is not strictly comparable because the two Ten programs are on in different timeslots, but it is a good illustration. There was a time when 7.30 could easily have 100,000 to 200,000 or more viewers a night in the metro markets than these programs. Last night it was weak, even with a big story to cover — the Manchester bombing, which it did manfully. But casual ABC viewers didn’t tune into the program, as they have done in the past. The rusted-on core did, and perhaps we saw last night that that base audience is now smaller than it once was.

It can’t argue that it was up against Masterchef, The Voice and House Rules. It was doing well when those shows were younger and grabbing higher audiences. And when lesser quality programs are on the commercials, 7.30’s audience doesn’t pick up enough for that to be a convincing defence. A year ago last night 7.30 had 600,000 metro viewers — and without a big story such as the Manchester massacre. Nationally 7.30 had 746,000 viewers last night (and 234,000 in the regions as well as the 512,000 in the metros). A year ago the national audience was 894,000, with 294,000 in the regions and 600,000 in the metros.

These programs are not being helped by the 10-20% slide in the figures for the 7pm ABC news bulletins in the metros, especially on a Monday night when Australian Story, Four Corners, Media Watch and Q&A are broadcast. Perhaps the ABC should look to change nights for some of these stalwarts to help refresh them? — Glenn Dyer and Emily Watkins

ABC demands apology for Quadrant article. Michelle Guthrie has written to Quadrant to complain about the article by editor Roger Franklin yesterday after the Manchester bombing, which originally read:

“Had there been a shred of justice, that blast would have detonated in an Ultimo TV studio. Unlike those young girls in Manchester, their lives snuffed out before they could begin, none of the panel’s likely casualties would have represented the slightest reduction in humanity’s intelligence, decency, empathy or honesty.”

The article has since been updated to be barely any better, changing that first sentence to: “What if that blast had detonated in an Ultimo TV studio?”.

Guthrie said in her letter the change, which has not been acknowledged by Quadrant, had not undone the damage, which was a “new low in the Australian public debate”.

“Like many others, I am appalled at your willingness to turn an act of terrorism in the United Kingdom into a means of making a political point against those you disagree with,” the letter said.

She said the ABC had had to call in security experts to assess the impact of the article, and to reassure worried staff. Security staff at the ABC also emailed staff this morning to advise there would be intermittent increased security today, and more rigorous security screening than usual.

Addressing Senate estimates earlier this afternoon, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield echoed Guthrie’s letter, also calling the article a “new low”. “The comments are sick and unhinged … I’m certain I speak on behalf of all my colleagues here in condemning what Quadrant has posted online,” he said.

Guthrie has requested that her letter be published on Quadrant’s website, the article be removed and Quadrant apologise for publishing it. There has been no response yet from Quadrant.

Video of the day. Manchester poet Tony Walsh has delivered a defiant response to the Manchester bombing at a vigil for the victims, paying tribute to the northern English city.

Sheridan sulks. It doesn’t take much for The Australian‘s foreign editor Greg Sheridan to feel persecuted by the ABC. A frequent critic of the public broadcaster, Sheridan was a panelist on the ABC’s The Drum last night, which was discussing the Manchester terrorist attack. The discussion got quite heated, with Sheridan — who was appearing from another studio — mistakenly attributing Essential Media’s Peter Lewis’s comments to counter-terror expert Clarke Jones. As host John Barron and the other panelists interrupted to correct him, Sheridan, demonstrating an extremely thin skin, demanding: “Look, is the ABC censoring a debate?”. You can watch the full show here, tune in at about 20:20 for Sheridan getting stroppy at not being allowed to finish his incorrect sentences.

Huge if true! In the third episode of comedy series Huge if True, Senator Derryn Hinch has taken a leave of absence from the Parliament to pursue a class action lawsuit in rural Australia! Our subs need a hand thinking of a headline. Find out more here.

Daily Mail slips in online audience numbers. The Guardian has bumped Daily Mail Australia out of the 10 most-read news websites, according to Neilsen’s ratings for April. News.com.au still has the largest audience, followed by ABC News, nine.com.au, smh.com.au and The Guardian. Yahoo7 and The Guardian were the only news websites in the top 10 to increase their audiences compared to March.

Peppa Pig bringing home the bacon. Calling all toddlers and those big sulky teenagers at News Corp, such as columnist Piers Akerman and his fellow travellers — more of the Pig is coming to amuse and confound you all.

Canadian media group Entertainment One says it will start making more than 100 new episodes of its hit show Peppa Pig. But we will all have to wait because the 117 new episodes won’t be available until the northern spring of 2019, to coincide with Peppa’s 15th birthday.

Entertainment One says the new series would take the total number of episodes to 381 and “secure a pipeline of Peppa Pig content over the following four years”. New episodes from series seven continue to roll out on air to the end of 2018. Entertainment One said that Peppa Pig My First Cinema Experience made $2.2 million in Australian cinemas and 3.4 million pounds in the UK.

This is the best news and a total repudiation of the stupid comments Akerman wrote in December 2013: “Even the cartoon character Peppa Pig pushes a weird feminist line that would be closer to the hearts of Labor’s Handbag Hit Squad than the preschool audience it is aimed at.” This was because Peppa was being broadcast on the ABC. He ignored the fact that Peppa was also being broadcast on Foxtel, 50% owned by News Corp. — Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer’s TV ratings. Nine still won’t let go of The Last Resort. While they flicked it from last night’s schedule, and benefited, it is still on tonight at 9pm. Nine must have invested a lot of money in this rotten program to still carry it in prime time –although 9pm and once a week lessens the losses. Nine won the main channels for the third night in a row. Nationally, House Rules had 1.51 million, The Voice, 1.34 million  — while The Voice beat House Rules in the metros —  and Masterchef had 1.21 million. That’s over 4 million people watching that trio, again.

Seven’s News on the east coast was again very weak, allowing Nine to claim a win in the five metro markets and offsetting the big wins by Seven in Adelaide and Perth. Seven news lost in Sydney by 67,000, Melbourne by 62,000 and Brisbane by 44,000. Seven still won nationally because of its overwhelming strength in the Adelaide and Perth and regional markets. But it is the second time in as many weeks that Seven’s losses on the East Coast have been so large that they have allowed Nine to win the metros. What makes Seven News effort weaker is another strong showing by the 5.30pm part of The Chase Australia — it beat Nine’s Hot Seat, 696,000 to 586,000. — Read the rest on the Crikey website

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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