The ABC’s waste of money on nothing new or original
In recent weeks there has been a lot of debate about the conflict between the expansion of the ABC and other media providers, including subscription television and potential online subscription services.
Jonathan Holmes in The Drum called it ‘the showdown over Australia’s new media landscape’, and correctly observed that the conflict derives from the foray of the publicly funded Aunty into markets that need to make money in order to survive.
The temptation is to portray this as another public-interest-versus-private-interest argument. But it’s not. Holmes’ article refreshingly didn’t fall into this trap, although he accurately set out the revenue implications for companies like FOXTEL of the ABC’s planned new services. As a businessman, this hurts—as does the long list of anti-competitive and wasteful subsidies and protections given to Seven, Nine and Ten. But it also hurts as someone with a passion for television and someone who believes in the potential of television to be more than just wires and lights in a box—as the Ed Murrow character in the movie Good Night and Good Luck put it.
I want to look at the issue of the ABC’s relentless expansion from another perspective—the one that should always be foremost in our minds: its implications for the quality of Australian television. It’s my belief that the Corporation’s strategy of expanding the breadth of its activities rather than improving the quality of its activities is to the detriment of the intellectual and creative life of our nation.
For decades, the ABC has been a loved and respected Australian institution, and for good reason. In the ‘old days’ the ABC provided a unique outlet a person could turn on to view often challenging programming. It was one of the formative cultural influences for millions of Australians, including me.
The cause of this lies in the very nature of the medium of pre-digital TV itself.
Because television was ‘broadcasted’ rather than ‘narrowcasted’ in the pre-digital age, commercial stations were forced by market logic to compete for the same audience, inevitably converging around similar programming. It’s the same marketing principle that leads political parties to converge on the centre ground to get 51 per cent of the voter share. This is not to say that the commercial broadcasters did not produce some quality shows, of course they did. But the nature of the medium means they often offered a choice between similar products with different labels.
In other words, the nature of pre-digital television made a serious form of market failure in terms of certain kinds of programming inevitable. Sections of the population went un-catered-for—hence Murrow’s lament that television has failed its true purpose. Only the ABC, free of commercial considerations, was able to offer really different programs—providing some market correction or rather a sense of balance with other perspectives and focus on things often omitted in the mainstream.
There is still a difference between what the commercial channels and the ABC offer, especially in most news and serious current affairs, although the gap in programming areas is narrowing (and certainly in the 90’s was sometimes not there in current affairs at all).
Most noticeable has been the steady decline in the intellectual content of the ABC’s programming. Ironically the ABC shows much less Australian content than the commercial channels, whilst we all recall Sea Change with affection it didn’t represent a distinguished period in the ABC in local output and the ABC has not yet recovered to levels of Australian output it had in the 70’s. It’s difficult to visit a seaside or country town these days without being an unwitting extra in an ABC ‘drama’ from that memorable series. But where is the volume we need of truly high-quality Australian programming? Where are the serious Australian-made documentaries, drama, mini-series and performance art programs on the ABC? You can still find them, but they’re fewer and further between than they should be especially given the current massive increased level of ABC funding.
What viewers want and deserve and should be getting for their ABC taxes is superior, content and a capital A in terms of national programming. There should be more dramatized novels, more serious discussion of books and science, and more edgy ABC-made versions of, The Wire and Mad Men. This—improving content quality and scope —is where the ABC should be spending the $137 million in extra funding it is getting from the Federal Government.
Instead, it seems determined to spread the ABC’s existing content across wider delivery platforms, and over more and more channels. Instead of a meaty minestrone, we will all have to subsist on a watery gruel. This is the real tragedy of the ABC’s grab for new territory—and it appears (from the revelations in Karen Kissane’s report in the Age on 13 March) that ABC staff are worried about this too. When the inevitable happens and funding contracts, the gruel will become Cuppa Soup.
And this tragedy will be compounded by the damage to existing quality television caused by Mark Scott’s public and aggressive strategy of targeting and replicating the subscription television sector (including through the ABC’s membership of Freeview, whose mission is obviously to steal customers from subscription providers using publicly subsidized advertising).
By expanding into 24-hour news, public affairs and dedicated children’s channels when these already exist, the ABC will potentially weaken existing television.
The ABC’s value has always rested on being a corrective to the market characteristics I mentioned above. But digital television by its very nature is making this market ‘failure’ redundant. Sport, light entertainment, reruns of classic comedies, lifestyle and reality series and drama will always probably form the bulk of what commercial television will do—and subscription television runs a lot of this programming to meet popular demand from our growing audience (now at over 35 per cent of households and with a larger portion of the population). But FOXTEL with over 200 channels is able to do much more besides, including serious intellectual programming – news, documentaries and a host of other programs. We have built these up at great cost, but this investment is put at risk by the ABC’s current strategy.
The ABC has added an ad-free children’s channel—ABC3. FOXTEL already had two ad free kids channels —Kids Co and CBeebies, plus six other kids’ channels—and should have been able to compete for contestable funding for new Australian children’s content.
The ABC plans to create a new 24-hour news channel FOXTEL already has several (Sky News and Sky News Local, Sky News Multiview, Sky News Business, A-PAC and the Weather channel) together with Fox News, BBC World News, CNBC, CNN and Bloomberg!).
And all these channels are available at no cost to the public purse.
Why does Mark Scott want to waste the ABC’s once-in-a-lifetime level of public investment duplicating what already exists—when he could and should be leading a 21st-Century renaissance of Australian culture? What core programs is Mr Scott going to have to cut to replicate what non-ABC media players are already doing, and doing well?
It is a scandalous mis-allocation of public funds, nothing more, nothing less
I went into television to run a business, but also because I believe in the potential of television to add to the richness of our lives. That’s why FOXTEL runs far more ballet, opera, symphonies and arts programs than any other network, including the ABC—soon to be aggregated onto a new channel produced by SBS exclusively for FOXTEL and Austar. And it’s why Showtime is making a landmark TV mini-series of Australia’s most loved modern novel —Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
We can only do so much. As the public broadcaster, the ABC should be pulling its weight much better. Shelves full of Great Australian Novels, award winning Australian plays, popular Australian history books, important Aussie biographies, Australia’s rich scientific and university community and new ideas for Australian drama are crying out to be put on Australian screens.
But all we will get if the ABC doesn’t change course is more of what we already have—funded by the public purse instead of private enterprise.
As Murrow would say, what a waste of television’s potential to teach, illuminate and inspire.
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