abc charter

It comes around every three or four years — an orchestrated push to pressure the ABC into spending more of its budget on locally produced drama. This time the lead agitator is former ABC TV boss Kim Dalton. A career bureaucrat, not broadcaster, Dalton penned a “paper” in late April calling for the government to impose content quotas on the national broadcaster.

All the usual suspects from the screen production sector then dutifully piled on. Review this weekend ran an extended feature on the same theme and allowed many of the more prominent participants a free kick. We heard from Penny Chapman (another former ABC TV head), from Screen Producers Australia, from Nick Murray (a principal of the powerful CJZ production partnership) and from Dalton himself.

These champions of quotas to increase local drama output at the ABC rely on the same fundamental claim. They prattle pompously about the need to “tell more Australian stories”, surely one of the most overworked cliches clogging any sensible debate about the proper shape of our cultural landscape.

[Local content rules not needed for ABC: Michelle Guthrie]

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“More local content!” has been a reflex catchcry for half a century. It’s an easy way to paint yourself as a standard bearer for quality television. The idealism is admirable; the practicalities more complex. What seems like an inarguably positive goal has an underbelly of subtler, and sometimes counter-poised, factors.

From one perspective it can be seen as little more than special pleading. Dalton and his claqueurs are lobbying for commercial advantage. Every one of the prominent figures calling for quotas has a direct financial or career interest in drama production for the screen and would expect to benefit in some way if the ABC were compelled by legislation to broadcast nominated amounts.

They rarely acknowledge this in their media releases or interviews, instead wrapping themselves in the flag of Australian national identity. What they’re really asking for is a combination of subsidy and protectionism. In effect, they want a guaranteed increased share of the market, and for the taxpayer to fund those ambitions. Nice work if you can get it.

But what’s so special about drama that puts it above all the other forms of screen entertainment? There has been a far greater loss of arts and sports programming on the ABC during the past two decades, yet where are the “powerful industry figures” demanding quotas for coverage of opera, concerts, ballet, theatre, the plastic arts, cricket, football or golf?

Those arguing for significant increases in local drama transmission also never tell us that it is by far the most expensive form of television content to produce in Australia. The sector has become so accustomed to long, fully funded development lead times and inflated production budgets that they can’t understand that their asking price is often the crux of the problem.

But, to be fair, the ABC itself is far from blameless in this situation.

Twenty years ago Aunty’s senior executive group — including the aforementioned Penny Chapman — led a movement to take the corporation away from its traditional in-house production functions and towards what they liked to call the “commissioning model”, based on Channel 4 in the UK. It was far more efficient (they claimed) to contract out the ABC’s programming requirements to the commercial producers. Yet it never occurred to them that by closing down their own production capacity they would make themselves captive to outside companies.

[‘Cuts mean that I have nothing to aspire to’: ABC wields the axe, cutting morale to the bone]

At the same time, under managing director Brian Johns, the ABC embarked on a grand infrastructure initiative titled “Collocation”. Its major studio lots at Ripponlea and Gore Hill were abandoned for new office-style accommodation alongside radio in the Melbourne and Sydney city precincts. Previously busy TV departments such as production design and the scenic workshop (set construction) — both vital for making in-house drama — were wound up and their staff made redundant. Where once the national broadcaster had splendid sound stages, its new studios were equipped to do not much more than standard, talking-head television.

So the simple truth is that the ABC no longer has the skills base or facilities to make its own drama programming. It buys rather than makes. At best, the ABC co-produces with external companies — the self-styled “independents” — which quite reasonably lump a hefty profit margin onto their already daunting production budgets. Aunty cannot afford to make as much drama as she might wish to, and never will again.

Everyone (other, perhaps, than Eric Abetz and Pauline Hanson) would like to see our national broadcaster produce more of its output, but nobody is prepared to say (at least in public) where the extra money required should come from.

Privately, the drama spruikers suggest the answer is to cut into the corporation’s news and current affairs budgets. That’s hardly a convincing option. News and current affairs define the ABC, and they deliver far greater audiences than even the most popular dramas — and at a fraction of the cost per hour.

In any case, raw quotas in themselves provide no assurance of quality. “More local content” may seem like a noble cause, but content can only be measured by genre, duration and time-slot. Everything else — production values, relevance and artistic merit — is largely subjective. It’s easy to forget that Married at First Sight and The Biggest Loser are “Australian content” too.