kirsten aiken
ABC News presenter Kirsten Aiken (Image: Supplied)

Overlooked the announcement of hundreds more jobs losses at the ABC in June was the release of the efficiency review of the ABC and SBS commenced in the last days of the Turnbull government. It’s a document that had far more coverage before it was written than afterward. 

It’s clear why the government left it sitting on a shelf for 18 months: the authors, former Foxtel CEO Peter Tonagh, who recently came to the rescue of AAP, and media lawyer and regulator Richard Bean, concluded that while both broadcasters should be much more strategic in their planning and transparent in their processes, they needed the financial certainty of a 10-year funding timeframe.

That won’t interest a government that would prefer the ABC doesn’t even exist ten years from now.

But the review zeroed in on a major problem with the broadcaster’s multichannel strategy: the ABC News channel (formerly known as News 24). ABC News channel marked its 10th birthday in July, having been established with a strict assurance that it would not draw resources away from other areas of the ABC — something both the channel’s supporters and opponents agree happens regardless of what ABC management says.

These days it is portrayed as the “brainchild” of news director Gaven Morris (whose wife Kirsten Aiken is one of the main newsreaders), though the idea of an ABC news channel in fact goes back to the David Hill/Kim Williams era last century. Morris sent staff a celebratory email on July 22 saying he was “looking forward to what the next 10 years will bring”.

The ABC News channel is expensive — though exactly how expensive, the ABC refuses to say. Tonagh and Bean received little cooperation from the ABC during their review, and noted that the broadcaster refused to provide access to materials and management. But the cost of the ABC News channel is certainly in the tens of millions:

“The review estimates that the ABC spends over $120 million on its multi-channels with approximately 600 full time equivalent staff (approximately 15% of the ABC workforce). Based on these estimates ABC News is the highest cost multi-channel utilising the largest proportion of full time equivalent staff.”

But the channel manages to attract less than two thirds of the audience of the less costly ABC Kids/ABC Comedy channel (formerly ABC2).

It does better than ABC ME, the channel for primary school-aged kids, except during the evenings, when ABC ME achieves about the same audience numbers. But the ABC News channel relies on simulcasted content from the ABC’s main channel to get audiences: according to Tonagh and Bean, “peak viewing on ABC News occurs during hours where content is simulcast from ABC1”.

In contrast, the only program originating on the news channel that has migrated to ABC TV’s main channel is the simulcast ABC News Breakfast, which copies a commercial network format — chatty presenters conducting interviews and telling us what’s going on in the world.

Tonagh and Bean noted that the ABC News channel’s average weekly metro reach had fallen significantly since 2014. The ABC’s 2019 annual report acknowledges both metro and regional weekly reach for the channel fell further since the review.

The ABC argues, in a statement posted last week following Crikey’s questions about the news channel, that it has lifted its audiences this year and that so far in 2020, “its average metro + regional weekly reach is 4 million”. It acknowledges “all networks have been experiencing a steady audience decline for some years … the news channel’s broadcast reach has been in line with total TV declines”.

Nonetheless, with an hourly evening average of around 50,000 viewers, the news channel is regularly outrated on weeknights by Sky News At Night, a CCTV feed from an insane asylum that people have to pay to watch.

Part of the problem is that the ABC News channel has produced little compelling content of its own despite an extensive investment in studios, expensive graphics, and equipment. Only interview program One Plus One, arts show The Mix, regional news wrap The Virus, Stan Grant’s short-lived Matter of FactThe Drum and News Breakfast originated there.

Unlike Sky News’ daytime news service, the ABC News channel doesn’t break stories but instead relies on a mix of rolling news coverage, media conferences and repeats of ABC main channel current affairs like Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners, Landline and Australian Story.

Tonagh and Bean’s recommendation was to consolidate all of the ABC’s multichannels into a single channel combining kids, local content and news, saving on the costs of producing and transmitting two other channels.

Those savings could be reinvested in improving the ABC’s core functions: original broadcast journalism, children’s programming and local and regional content.

The review made a similar recommendation about SBS’ multichannels, and argued in relation to both broadcasters that “longer term, between $80 million and $115 million per annum could be redirected to reinvestment … a minimum of $45 million in content and resourcing would also be diverted from existing multichannels to reconfigured ABC and SBS main channels and IP platforms”.

The ABC disputes those figures, saying the costing “was based on assumptions made by the review and not on ABC data”, and that it doesn’t know the basis for them despite asking the government for it.

The review also suggested some multichannel content could move fully online, and ABC TV could still provide coverage of major breaking news stories via its remaining single multichannel — which was the accepted routine before the ABC News channel was launched in 2010.

The question of whether the tens of millions spent on the ABC News channel would be better directed into the ABC’s core functions, including news and current affairs, is far more acute now than when the review was undertaken.

Funding cuts inflicted on the ABC by the current government have lead to 250 positions being lost, including 70 of the ABC’s most accomplished journalists and producers, such as chief rural reporter Dominique Schwartz, chief arts correspondent Michaela Boland, radio current affairs executive producer Elizabeth Jackson and chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici.

But with thousands of editorial positions being slashed at commercial metropolitan and regional media companies, the ABC is becoming the last resort of public interest journalism — though these days always from John Lyons’ current affairs teams, not the ABC News area, which breaks few stories, is more focused on clickbait, and has a record of caving into government pressure.

How the ABC allocates its resources thus has greater national importance than ever, and the benefit of the ABC News channel to public interest journalism and news-breaking seems less clear than at any time in the last decade.

Not all agree. UTS professor and head of journalism Monica Attard, previously a long-time ABC journalist and editor, backs the channel.

“It enables the ABC to re-run its best programs from ABC1 and cover news conferences (even if it annoys everyone by cutting away from them),” she told Crikey. “It also enables the ABC to run more local stories and forces journalists to broaden the voices that are heard on the ABC.”

Attard also disputes the suggestion from the review that much of this content can simply be shifted online to platforms like iView and YouTube.

“The ABC is still grappling with multiple audiences — over-60s in its audience who are not tech savvy mean it is still betwixt and between on delivery. It can do online delivery in 10 to 20 years but it’s not there yet.”

ABC veteran and former staff-elected director Matt Peacock, now chair of the ABC Alumni group, said establishing the channel was smart, and had forced ABC news to learn to “scramble fast”. But he also argued the channel was a significant drain on resources elsewhere, including sucking in talent and time from other divisions to provide content and updates.

This was a point made by another ABC veteran, who noted journalists at the ABC’s foreign bureaux have to devote time to live crosses to ABC News that could be better spent finding out what was really going on, especially during major events. He described the channel as a misuse of resources that started a decade too late.

One senior ABC news source suggested a key problem was that ABC news director Gaven Morris hadn’t spent any time making quality, fact-checked and long form current affairs, and therefore didn’t appreciate the time and resources required to produce it.

With minimal audiences and little journalistic impact, what was 10 years ago an 1990s-era indulgence by the ABC may be an unaffordable luxury in a country starved of public interest journalism.