Shaun Micallef's Mad as Hell (Image: ABC)

There are many people inside and outside the ABC who believe the broadcaster shouldn’t chase ratings, as though it would somehow sully its reputation.

That is an irrational stance. The ABC does pretty well on both TV and radio without trying to promote itself in daily battles with commercial and pay TV — despite funding being slashed year after year by conservative governments and in-denial media ministers like current incumbent Paul Fletcher. It regularly beats Network Ten into third spot in the national ratings.

In many respects, it also does a better job in cross-promoting content than its commercial rivals. Its TV and radio networks take advantage of cross-promoting talent and content across news and current affairs programs like Four Corners, 7.30, Australian Story, Catalyst and Landline. Apart from network programs like 60 Minutes and A Current Affair, there’s nothing on Seven, Nine or Ten to rival the ABC’s line-up.

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Nine is getting its act together with resources from the former Fairfax papers, helping to restore the credibility 60 Minutes has lost in the past two decades.

In radio — both AM talk and FM music — the ABC more than holds its own against Macquarie, Southern Cross Austereo and HT&E. In the crucial breakfast time slot it finishes second or occasionally first in most markets in AM talk.

Meanwhile its news website is in the top three nationally every month, taking on News Corp and The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. There are also news sites for Seven West, Nine, SBS and smaller providers.

Those complaining don’t seem to realise that the ABC doesn’t boast about its ratings successes because it can’t. It’s a client of Oztam and Regional TAM, the two groups that oversees the daily free-to-air and subscription TV ratings systems. Oztam is owned by Seven, Nine and Ten; Regional TAM is owned by Seven, Nine (NBN), WIN, Southern Cross and Prime. The ABC is constrained by the client relationship.

Some in TV have claimed Oztam’s owners will not allow the ABC to issue ratings reports externally, but an internal ABC report and analysis is issued five days a week to senior management and program makers.

The complainers also ignore the fact that the ABC is pretty competitive — has been for the best part of two decades or more. Those of us of a certain age can remember the phenomenon that was SeaChange with Laura and Diver Dan from 1998 to 2000. Ratings topped 2 million on Sunday nights (in the five metro capital markets and closer to 2.8 million nationally).

But compared with commercial networks, the ABC has stuck with some genres that the financially strained Seven and Nine in particular (and to a lesser extent, Ten) have abandoned. These include comedy (Utopia is the latest example, but Rake was the best most recent program); science (Catalyst); drama (Mystery RoadStateless and Operation Buffalo); and satire (Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, The Weekly). It is the major producer of children’s TV (which the cash-strapped commercials want to exit). In fact it is the major local producer of drama, children’s TV, comedy, and news and current affairs.

News and current affairs remain a staple on TV and radio and no other network comes near. Nine has pale imitations of its once high-flying A Current Affair and 60 Minutes. Seven has nothing (it claims Sunrise, but that and Today are more service programs for people in the workforce).

The ABC’s New Breakfast is the only news program in mornings on Australian free-to-air TV. It is simulcast on the ABC’s main channel and ABC News (as is the hour of news from 9am to 10am and an hour of news from noon to 1pm).

ABC News (the old News 24) is the Achilles heel. It is weak, dull, poorly directed and produced, under-resourced and stale, especially at weekends. The lower frame news crawl is rarely updated from late Friday to early Sunday.

Four Corners, Media Watch, Landline, Australian Story and 7.30 should be simulcast on the news channel. If it’s good enough for News Breakfast, Offsiders and Insiders, why not others?

TV ad revenues for free-to-air fell $1.2 billion — from $3.6 billion to $2.4 billion — in 2019-20. Other revenues from BVOD (broadcaster video on demand) and advertising would probably approach $150-$180 million a year. That will never replace lost ad revenues and has made all the networks poorer, slimmer and more dependent on big, expensive “reality” shows (My Kitchen Rules, Married at First Sight, MasterChef, The Bachelor, Plate of Origin).

And it has forced them to cut news and current affairs.

The ABC’s budgets have shrunk but it has not headed for reality pap programming. In reality it does well every year with its limited resources, a tribute to staff, managers and the outside producers.

There are more than 9 million streaming video subscribers (SVOD) in Australia, according to the Nine Network (Nine’s Stan has 2.2 million). With dual subscriptions the actual number could be closer to 7 million. It’s SVOD, not Google or Facebook, that’s doing the greatest damage to TV in this country, and indirectly radio and print. (FM music radio networks like triple j face their own streaming threat from the likes of Spotify and Pandora).

AM Talk, where the ABC essentially competed with Nine’s Macquarie network, is “relatively” protected at the moment because there are no real streaming news channels like Spotify.

SVOD’s threat is diverting eyeballs away from TV and cable on the same set. The big problem for commercial radio and TV (and indirectly print) is that Netflix is ad-free. So is the ABC, which pioneered BVOD through iview.

That absence of ads should be an enormous advantage for the ABC over the next few years as Netflix reeducates viewers away from expecting advertising with their video content and younger media consumers get sick of the ads and other rubbish on social media platforms.

Existing Australian media whiners such as News Corp, Nine and Seven West can’t complain about Netflix diverting ad and other revenues. It’s not. But it and other streamers are getting Australians to pay more than a $1.2 billion a year in subscriptions for watching a form of broadcast that only the ABC has in this country.

So the ABC’s next big project should be how to leverage the attraction Netflix has for Australians and starting a streaming service of its own — and asking Australians to pay $10 a month.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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