man walks past ABC entrance with television screen showing press conference about job cuts
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

This week’s dramatic cuts to the ABC are the worst cuts possible — other than any of the alternative cuts the ABC could have made. Something had to give, thanks to the Liberal government’s 2018 decision to freeze funding until 2022, costing the public broadcaster $84 million.

At the time, it was dismissed as an outgoing act of bastardry by a dying government. Now, combined with the cuts the Liberals promised not to make before the 2013 election, it’s estimated ABC real income will be down by 10% by the time of the next election.

Does the government care? Not much. Punish enemies, reward friends — that’s the Morrison approach. And attacking the ABC brings an added benefit — News Corp’s gratitude.

The ABC has tried to cut while managing the continuing transition from a 20th century broadcaster to a 21st century multimedia organisation (broadcasting, streaming, online) with content diversified for the demands of fragmenting audiences.

In its ongoing war with News Corp, the public broadcaster has given its US-owned critic a culture war win: repurposing ABC Life and rebranding the ABC Comedy free to air channel. And a financial loss: taking the ABC off Foxtel satellite and bidding for a cut of the (still mythical) shakedown of Google and Facebook.

Bad as they are, yesterday’s cuts are not enough for the government apparently, which took the opportunity of yesterday’s turmoil to slip out the latest “efficiency” review of the ABC from former Foxtel boss Peter Tonagh, which suggests adding service cuts to the program cuts.

Taken as a whole, the ABC seems to be continuing its long-term response to diminishing funding: centralise and network output to the minimum necessary with less local and narrowed parameters of content — closer to perceptions of what’s mainstream. Apart from the program closures, staff should expect “thinning” — being required to produce the same with less.

In sum? Less local. Fewer original programs. Less diversity. ABC supporters will hope management have got it right, keeping the infrastructure live for a future rebuild.

The high-profile cut is the traditional state-based, 15-minute 7.45am radio news, has been cut down to five minutes at 8am — with AM to follow, down to 25 minutes. Easy to see what gets squeezed here — local or state-based news, particularly with 70 jobs going from the news division.

There’s been plenty of chatter — particularly from ABC old hands — about the traditional morning programming as “destination radio”. Maybe. The ABC says news consumption is being time-shifted and is putting ABC Listen at the centre of its strategy.

There will be a thinning and slicing of ABC programs with 52 jobs going from entertainment and programming and the shift to no more than 42 weeks of first-run regular programming. Expect more repeats or foreign buy-ins.

That’s not enough for the Tonagh review, which recommends closing broadcast channels, such as ABC News 24. After all, when you’ve got Sky News, who needs an ABC competitor?

Similarly, expect more — and longer periods of — networking in regional radio. Normally, over summer, regional radio shifts to state-based programming. One of the big bushfire-related costs to the ABC was keeping radio regional in NSW and Victoria to provide the deeply local news and information that communities needed.

Again, not enough, apparently, for the Tonagh review which suggests that ABC local radio should follow the route of commercial radio with greater state and national networking.

ABC Life which has brought a diverse energy and younger audience online, reporting on issues largely ignored by mainstream media, will see half its staff become ABC Local, with “a broader editorial direction” (where “broader” should be read as “narrower”). Think the mainstream ABC metropolitan local radio online, with, perhaps, a greater input from suburban and outer-metropolitan communities.

ABC Comedy, which also targets a younger demographic, will shift online and the broadcast channel will revert to its previous ABC2 format with largely repeat programming. Expect less original programming across all genres. Program makers do.

The cuts compound to an annual real reduction of $28 million this coming financial year and $41 million the year after. On top of that, the ABC has had to absorb the extra costs it incurred from its recent bushfire coverage.

Expect more shaving later this year. Expect the government not to care.

Has the ABC made cuts in the right places? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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