ABC photographer Matt Roberts covering the NSW bushfires on January 1, 2020 (Image AAP/Sean Davey)

On demand, online, personal to you: that’s the challenge for the ABC, like all broadcasters, as Australian media navigates the end of schedule broadcasting. It’s the tension that underlies the day-to-day dramas of personality changes, board appointments and funding cuts.

Sounds great, except it involves shattering the habits of linear destination programming that the ABC has spent decades building up, replacing it with a world of on-demand streaming, podcasts and news online. Even more challenging: the audience isn’t there yet — or at least much (maybe most) aren’t.

Every step is inherently tentative. Every change contested. Take the 15-minute 7.45am state-based local radio bulletin set to be axed this month. For opponents of the change it’s still the news anchor it was built to be: where audiences come to the linear program for the news that starts the day. It’s that predictability, the destinationists say, that brings authority and trust.

Maybe once. Maybe still for a certain older and demanding audience. But not forever.

As a public broadcaster, the ABC is immune from the disruption of ad-dependent commercial media. It doesn’t need to force the largest possible audience to watch as many ads as they can put up with.

But it’s not immune to the shock of the infinite information and content that the internet brings crashing into the all-too-finite limits of our attention.

That shock is not uniformly distributed. There’s still a large — and loving — audience for the old schedule. The flagship 7pm TV news, for example, still draws a nightly (albeit ageing) audience of about 1 million.

The responsibility of the ABC is to provide “an equal digital life”, says the broadcaster’s director of news, analysis and investigations Gaven Morris. “We didn’t need to change our editorial values for younger audiences. We just needed to find where younger audiences wanted to consume it. This is the big lesson from the digital age.”

Through last summer’s bushfires and now the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABC has been the digital news leader, according to monthly Nielsen surveys. Morris says the big drivers are Facebook, Google and Apple News. It also draws users through its Messenger bot.

The ABC launched its free video-on-demand service iview in 2008, with a redesigned app for smart TVs launched last month. According to the 2019 annual report, it averaged 16 million program plays a week in 2018-19.

Since 2012 it’s had the ABC listen app for streaming radio and audio on demand (1.4 million livestreams and 580,000 on demand each week, according to the 2019 annual report). It’s launched a triple j listen app that incorporates Double J and Unearthed.

In television, News 24 (and News Radio) meets the crossover between traditional linear broadcast and streaming on demand. 

Podcasts are mid-transition from bespoke niche to mass market. According to the ABC’s head of audio Kellie Riordan it’s still a relatively small — but growing — audience, with about 25% of Australians regular podcast listeners. Traditional programming — say, AM — are reimagined and rereleased as podcasts.

At the same time, the ABC is attempting to reshape destination broadcasting with a live event flavour that builds content that can be used for multiple feeds. Think Insiders, with its Sunday morning brunch conversation styling which can also be recut for audio and video streaming. Or Q+A (in current branding) which blends audience, panels and social media to create engagement.

For the time being traditional broadcast is the giant. It’s how most Australians use the ABC. But there’s a tipping point coming and like everything else in the changing media, it’s being turbo-charged by the COVID-19 shock.

Morris says: “My theory is that on-demand video news programs that are never out of date are going to be the big emerging trend.”

Imagine, he says, an on-demand news program shaped by artificial intelligence made up of the stories you want to know, structured to run the length of your usual commute.

“We’re getting to the point that what drives a behaviour is on demand and personalised. It’s a greater challenge than anything that has come before.”

How the ABC navigates that challenge over the next five years will determine just what the ABC of the future will look like.

Jacqui Park is the author of the Centre for Media Transition report News Media Innovation 2020 for which she interviewed news media leaders here and overseas, including Gaven Morris and Kellie Riordan.