abc charter

Public declarations that the ABC should produce and transmit more arts programming is an easy, motherhood play. It’s the luvvie equivalent of politicians making sombre speeches about the need for the nation to “do more” for our brave returned service personnel. There’s no PR downside. Everyone nods in pious agreement. But making any substantial and lasting change is far more difficult.

Yesterday the ABC announced yet another new “review” or “survey” (it’s not clear what precise form the document takes) that confirms a view within the arts community that Aunty should be broadcasting more opera, ballet, drama, plastic arts, concert music, etc, etc. Surprise, surprise. If they took similar soundings in the vintage car community they’d be told there should be more Hispano-Suizas on the box. Everyone thinks that their particular interest is under-represented on the national broadcaster.

Conducted by the departing ABC head of TV Arts and board member Simon Mordant, the current review involved gathering input from a panel of 30 artistic directors and administrators plus a survey of 1600 respondents. They all seemed to want more arts shows.

Nevertheless, Mordant has so far declined to make public the recommendations he took to the board. We’re told these were endorsed, along with an implementation plan. Perhaps those details are being withheld for fear that other, more powerful, departments within the ABC might shoot them down before they have a chance to fly. The head of News and Current Affairs is unlikely to graciously make way for a new production of The Cherry Orchard.

What this special pleading cannot avoid are the two primary limitations on all radio and TV programming: money and air-time.

[A Murdoch-led band of whingers claims the ABC is killing commercial media]

Quality arts content is costly to produce, and it is difficult to justify prime time slots in the schedule for material that rarely attracts anything more than what is euphemistically called a “minority audience”, i.e. three retired piano teachers and a dog that does interpretive dance. Spending millions on unwatched opera makes the ABC an easy target for those among its many enemies who delight in accusing it of having an elitist detachment from the mainstream.

Which is the principal reason why arts output on free-to-air TV has been in decline since the days of David Hill. To be done well, it consumes a disproportionate amount of the ABC’s production budget and resources for a return that has to be measured in such woolly terms as “distinctiveness” and “cultural value” to divert attention from its disappointing audience share. Meanwhile, programming with more obvious appeal muscles arts content out of the better time slots, making it even more difficult to attract enough ears and eyeballs to justify its existence.

But the problem is not entirely of Aunty’s own making, although her timidity in this important area of her responsibilities over the past 20 years has been obvious. The arts themselves must shoulder some of the blame.

Back in the golden era of theatrical broadcasts on ABC TV the opera, ballet, and drama companies were all keen to have their work featured on national television. They provided their performances gratis, or at a minimal charge in return for the precious exposure being offered.

The ABC also owned all the capital city orchestras, so concert music coverage (and the pit orchestras needed for opera and ballet) were easy to secure, and cheap. But from the late 1990s escalating payment demands from the main companies pushed up the cash cost of televising major stage-based productions to impossible levels. The orchestras now run themselves, and cut their own deals.

[The ABC can’t (and shouldn’t) produce more local drama content]

The current annual budget for all non-drama ABC TV arts production is around $3 million. Chickenfeed. The Seven Network probably spends at least as much on its grand final telecast. It’s doubtful this pitiful $3 million kitty would fund much more than the high-quality coverage of a single grand opera. In any case, those of us who enjoy classical music concerts, opera, drama, art history, cinema, literature and just about every other aspect of creative culture can watch it on pay TV, where the arts have a dedicated 24-hour channel.

Predictably, the ABC’s response — at least as signaled in its announcement yesterday — seems to be a shift in emphasis towards programs about the arts. These are less costly to produce and easier to schedule. But they are also an admission that the national broadcaster is continuing to tip-toe away from its obligation to bring Australia’s performance-based cultural output to a wider audience than those few who can afford to buy a seat.  

In 1956, the very first program broadcast from the ABC’s studio in Sydney was a production of the J.M. Barrie play The Twelve Pound Look. A fortnight later, the Melbourne television service of the ABC began with David Oistrakh giving a short violin recital.

That’s how much Aunty’s programming priorities have changed.  

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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