This piece is part of a Crikey Deep Dive series: “What is the ABC For?”. We’re trying to unravel and distill some of the crucial questions the ABC should be asking itself in this post-Guthrie/Milne era.
As the ABC evolves to the central Australian media voice, it finds itself caught between the nostalgia of its friends and the animus of its enemies.
Right now, only the ABC (and perhaps SBS) has the business strategy to build an Australian voice that can compete with the local franchises of global media players.
The demand for content (and the expectations of the quality required to meet that demand) has outstripped the commercial viability of producers of Australian content at the scale required to compete with the gushers of offshore (read US) material.
In Australia, there’s a long tradition of what we do when local culture can no longer be commercially supported: the government steps in. Now the entire market model for Australian content — news and information, drama and light entertainment, recorded and distributed music — is struggling as advertising pivots to social media and commercial media have to manage on lower income from reader or viewer revenues.
That’s the opening for government-funded public broadcasters — the ABC and SBS — to evolve into the main multi-platform source of Australian news and current affairs, for Australian drama and for Australian music.
Being the central media voice is about more than sheer volume. It means being the cultural agenda setter. The public broadcasters have long played this role in drama (as far as funding has allowed). But in news, the ABC has been more cautious.
It leads the way in mainstream reporting over a range of subjects (rural affairs, health, education, science, foreign news). Its charter obligations to balance provide an ethical ballast that shapes the entire Australian news culture.
However, deeply ingrained in the ABC news culture is a deference that allows governments to set the political news agenda and, at times, News Corp to determine what is “news”.
To evolve, the ABC and SBS will have to adapt to be where Australians are heading, not where they once were. This means adapting to the platforming of distribution, recognising that broadcast is just one distribution channel. For example: streaming, currently restrained by the technological limits on iView and Australian broadband.
Project Jetstream — the baby of former chair Justin Milne — was a stab at a big ticket technological fix to this particular problem.
The ABC also needs to adapt its news — both in content and in workforce — to the growing diversity of Australia. The brouhaha over Four Corners Bannon interview uncovered just how far it still has to go.
Not so in drama. The ABC has followed SBS in making progress in drama, partly due to the outsourcing of production. Potential conflicts of interest means this has never been an appropriate model for an independent ABC news service.
A proactive diversity agenda seems the most likely way for the ABC news to break free of its history of institution follower to become the sort of news agenda setter that some of the big Four Corners investigations have shown Australians expect it to be.
The ABC debates show its enemies (particularly in News Corp) understand the broadcaster’s opportunity, perhaps better than do the ABC’s friends. That’s why there’s a push to constrain ABC and SBS to 20th century free-to-air broadcast radio and television, currently being played out in the government’s so-called competitive neutrality review and in the budget announcement of a further efficiency review.
At the same time, they want the ABC to be perceived as a voice of the left, rather than recognise its traditional role as a public square for debate. This opens up a privatised space for an Australian Foxified voice for the right.
Too often the ABC’s friends find themselves aligned with the organisation’s enemies when they serenade the ABC with the words of the Elton John hit: “I love you just the way you are.” Or perhaps: “the way you were last year”
Social media during the Guthrie-Milne saga was full of criticisms from friends (including some staff), ranging from the failure to bring back a state-based 7.30 through to the early evening scheduling of Doctor Who. More than a few staff bought in with their own gripes.
There’s a real strength to that passion. But that passion can’t be misapplied to a hazy nostalgia that prevents the ABC from evolving as the central Australian media voice.