ABC managing director

The ABC will blow out its allotted $1 million for emergency reporting, with the broadcaster telling Crikey its bushfire crisis coverage expected to cost “well into the millions of dollars”.

It’s not surprising: an ABC spokesperson told Nine last week that there have already been 670 emergency broadcast events for the 2019-20 financial year, compared to 371 in total for the 2018-2019 financial year.

And the cost of that coverage is “only going to create headaches for management”, according to veteran television producer and host of podcast TV Blackbox Robert McKnight.

McKnight told Crikey the national broadcaster is calling staff back early from holidays and asking them to work rostered days off to keep up with the bushfire crisis.

McKnight also understands the ABC is providing living allowances to staff working away from home, and handing out cab charges to workers who usually catch public transport when they’ve done a long shift.

“When news breaks everyone just works harder and longer knowing they are doing something important, but that isn’t sustainable,” McKnight said. “As time goes on people need time off and need to be replaced. That’s when costs start to rise as you employ freelancers and pay airfares to get those workers into the fire zones.”

The ABC is six months into a three-year freeze on any increase in its $1 billion annual budget, a move expected to shave around $85 million off what the broadcaster had previously expected over that period. The ABC’s board and management met in December last year to consider a five-year cost-cutting strategy that is expected to include 200 jobs axed in March.

“No-one at the ABC would ever suggest they stop their coverage so the newsroom will get whatever funds it needs but it will come at a cost to other sections of the broadcaster,” McKnight said.

“There isn’t an endless supply of cash for news coverage any more. Those in charge will most likely have to make it work within their current budget and that means something will have to give later on.”

The ABC hinted at future talks with the Coalition over its budget freeze, telling Crikey in a statement that “at the appropriate time we will discuss our current funding circumstances with the government”.