Text size: A A A

Tom Burton: #OurABC, from half channel to uber platform

Prime minister Bob Hawke was fond of referring to the ABC as that “f—king half channel”.

It was the early 1980s; Hawke had recently moved to the Lodge in Canberra to find there were just two television channels: the local Channel Seven, owned by then media tyro Kerry Stokes, and the ABC. The first national satellites were being fired up and the cricket-loving Hawke wanted to be able to watch his favourite sport on Nine, instead of being limited to the local Seven outlet and that “f—king half channel”.

The Packer family controlled Nine. Packer’s chief advocate, young lawyer-cum-journalist Malcolm Turnbull, was fiercely pushing for the three city commercial networks to be able to broadcast direct across Australia. These networks were like orchards, argued Turnbull, who should be able to distribute their fruit direct to their viewers, rather than have to sell their crop through wholesalers like Stokes’ local Canberra operation.

Stokes organised an unlikely coalition of National Party and rural Labor Party representatives to defend the regional broadcasters from big-city media — and won that round easily. Thirty years on, Stokes is still playing politics with the younger Malcolm, with his Seven Group showing no enthusiasm for any rule changes that would threaten the prevailing hegemony.

Seven now rules the roost. Like many media barons before him, Stokes is not going to easily green light changes, which would give his competitors a leg-up in the ensuing media buyouts likely following any windback of the now arcane ownership rules.

Some things never change.

In the meantime, it is Hawke’s beloved half channel that is now arguably the most successful media player in the country. The ABC delivers an extraordinary array of content to selected audiences at an impressive industrial scale across a multiplicity of digital and online platforms. At last count you can access over 40 channels of video, audio and text content via the ABC’s mobile application, plus a myriad on-demand programming. The ABC’s catch-up application iView is streets ahead of anything its commercial competitors offer.

[pullquote] “… the ABC has built the most powerful media platform in the country.” [/pullquote]

At a time where its major local media rivals — with the arguable exception of Stokes’ Seven and Foxtel’s all-digital pay platform — have thrashed around to find their place in the new digital landscape, the ABC has built the most powerful media platform in the country.

At a technological and content level, even the ABC’s fiercest competitors acknowledge the public broadcaster is a long way from the dear old “Aunty” it used to be fondly called.

The digital smarts to make this happen are testimony to the strong engineering culture which once ruled the ABC. Probably more impressive has been the ABC’s ability to remake itself into a true digital multi-product, multi-channel media organisation, delivering engaging content to discrete audience segments, while maintaining its brand mark for quality.

Ask any fair-minded media executive and they will tell you that is no mean feat, requiring a level of content savvy and marketing sophistication many more commercial media groups have struggled to replicate.

And according to ABC boss Mark Scott, this has been done on 2000 less staff and $200 million less, in real terms, compared to 20 years ago.

This has irked its more cantankerous media competitors and, in the tedious fashion of the day, has seen much of the commentary around the ABC hijacked by juvenile diatribes around ideology and personalities. Most of this is of no interest to those who don’t live in the daily journo echo chamber.

The ABC and its sister network SBS are, of course, publicly funded, with taxpayers this year paying out over $1.6 billion to fund the two media networks. This compares with around $700 million for the entire arts and culture appropriation budget of the Commonwealth.

The ABC has never been shy about its budget requirements and has successfully secured the funds it has needed from governments of all flavours. Often loathed by the right factions of both major political parties, the ABC has over generations deftly used its support base to win funds from Canberra. This base includes the left-liberal chattering classes, the so-called “doctors’ wives” — the label used to describe Coalition-voting professional families — and a strong loyal rural support group.

As a public agency, the ABC is rightly subject to more review and accountability than its commercial rivals. Despite having easily the most sophisticated editorial control policies of any media group in the country, it is a perennial lightning rod for commentators who claim the ABC is institutionally biased against social conservatism, business profitability and economic rationalism.

Aunty under an Abbott government

Led by a small but vocal group of critics — and aided by some patently poor ABC editorial and corporate judgments — the noise from these critics has been even more shrill since the Abbott government was elected.

Turnbull — a solid, but not dewy-eyed supporter of the ABC — moved earlier this year to quell some of the noise from his own ranks, appointing ex-Seven executive Peter Lewis to review the ABC’s spending priorities and efficiencies. The report remains confidential, but the elements leaked suggest Lewis has targeted the ABC’s large in-house production investments and corporate overheads, and suggested the changes could create six-figure savings. Lewis acknowledged the ABC’s access to cheap government capital meant it made sense for it to build its own facilities, but that times had changed.

Turnbull has put the report back with the ABC and late last week ABC MD Mark Scott acknowledged the ABC will need to find substantial savings to satisfy Canberra’s budget demands, at a time where it will also need to continue to invest into its online platform.

More profoundly, in a speech he dubbed “#OurABC”, Scott signalled that despite the ABC’s impressive transformation, the need for more change was even more pressing:

“We must acknowledge how much the world has been altered by digital media, and how rapidly and urgently we need to change to deal with this. Changes that might have taken ten years in the analogue age now take place within the space of one.

“We must accept that in the fierce contest for audiences, where old alliances no longer work and where friends can become rivals, the ABC has to robustly review its programming and services, find new ways to keep the audiences we have and to attract new ones. We will make the investment necessary to deliver quality programming. But it will be prudent and we will need to make careful judgments about the audience return.

“I agree with the respected media analyst Megan Brownlow’s assessment that in this cluttered, fast-changing environment, those who are timid, who make ad hoc decisions and forget the lessons of history will be the industry’s losers. The winners will be the disruptive, those who refuse to wait for others, who identify the trends in the data and act on them.

“We want the ABC to be among the winners. And that means accepting the blunt reality and paradox within the famous line from The Leopard: ‘If we want things to remain as they are, things will have to change.'”

Scott — an ex-ministerial adviser to then-NSW Liberal education minister Terry Metherell, and a former Fairfax Media editorial executive — has been a forceful advocate for change since he was appointed by the ABC board during John Howard’s era in 2006. Much of the ABC’s successful engagement of digital media has been driven by Scott’s clear-headed view of what was required. Scott had seen first hand at Fairfax the consequences of failing to adapt to the inexorable rise of digital media.

The CEO of the commercial television lobby Free TV, Julie Flynn, rates Scott as one of the best leaders the ABC has had. The ABC’s success has in many ways fortified the free-to-air platform, marketed as Freeview, and the ABC’s program mix has arguably helped fend off pay TV from the free-to-air marketplace.

Watching Scott smoothly navigating the six-monthly Senate Estimates committees is a case study for any agency leader wanting tips on how to navigate that madness. It was no surprise when the ABC board reappointed Scott for a further five years in 2011, to the applause of then-Labor communications minister Stephen Conroy.

Scott won substantial funding increases to support the ABC’s digitalisation, regional and online initiatives as well as retaining (in controversial circumstances) a contract to run an international service on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The election of a new government and an assertive and equally media savvy minister — Turnbull is known in the communications portfolio as the “chairman of the board” — has challenged Scott’s charmed life as leader of an ever-expanding ABC.

The DFAT contract has been pulled and Turnbull has picked up on the Lewis observation that the end of cheap government finance means the business case is no longer there for large-scale investment in facilities. Turnbull has been critical, for example, of the ABC’s determination to build a large new production facility at its Southbank headquarters in Melbourne.

Scott acknowledges this. In his recent speech he laid out a new operating paradigm:

“There is a strong argument that in an era of scarce funding, the default position should be that unless there is a compelling financial — or importantly, editorial — reason for an activity to remain in-house, or unless it relates to an area of core competence for the ABC, outsourcing must be looked at.”

Turnbull might think differently about Southbank if he came from the Garden State, but watching the Scott and Turnbull interplay has been one of the year’s more intriguing pieces of political theatre.

Scott now faces the dual challenge of refunding Canberra its fiscal demand, as well as pushing a change-weary ABC to embrace another major round of changes, to accommodate what he rightly describes as the inexorable shift in audiences to the internet. This, he says, must involve some content choices.

Television in the digital era

It was academic George Gelder who, 20 years ago, predicted the demise of television as a mass medium, in a seminal work dubbed, Life After Television. Gelder predicted the roll out of limitless broadband through fibre-optics and the inexorable increase in microchip power, anything capable of being delivered by a computer server and network would. In Gelder’s scenario, television would remain, but would focus on big live events such as sport and Australian Idol, and mass populist formats such as reality programming.

Television as a platform remains impressively resilient, but much of what Gelder predicted is playing out — instinctively, it feels we are one (short) digital generation of technology away from the much-vaunted internet TV going mainstream. A suburban Dick Smith store manager recently told me the new $49 Chromecast key from Google, which enables easy internet streaming to the big screen, is selling like hotcakes to mums and dads in their suburban homes.

Turnbull describes the internet as the uber platform transforming all before it; indeed, he employed this argument for the reneging of the ABC’s Australia Network contract. Why was the ABC investing in old broadcast technologies to deliver programs to Asia, when the same could be delivered via the internet?

It is a question which could be asked about the ABC’s broader platform. Today, the quality of compressed streamed media is truly impressive. And as higher-speed internet gets rolled out via the National Broadband Network, the need for television and radio technologies — and all the attendant Rolls Royce costs which go with it — becomes increasingly redundant.

Equally, at the flick of a pen at the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the digital standard for video could be upgraded from MPEG2 to MPEG4, and the current four-channel ensembles could be immediately doubled to eight channels, watchable on most flat-screen TVs.

Scott trained at the Kennedy School of Government and is a strategy-first person. A while ago he commissioned consultants, LEK, to lay out a road map for the future. Not surprisingly, the report recommends the abandonment of old technology management structures, calling for the focus to be on audiences and their content needs. All very digital orthodox.

[pullquote] “Having confidently embraced digital in the 2000s, the ABC is a case study for purposeful transformation.” [/pullquote]

Having confidently embraced digital in the 2000s, the ABC is a case study for purposeful transformation. But as all organisations are finding, Turnbull’s uber internet is a relentless force for change. Content is one of the easiest markets to digitalise and media has been an early case study for digital disruption, as the management consultants like to say.

In many ways we are just emerging from what I call the silent movie phase of the internet. The future trend lines — ubiquitous broadband, all devices networked, content semantically joined, powerful cheap cloud infrastructure — all suggest the next phase of digitalisation is likely to be even more disruptive.

And if Scott’s desire is to be brave, early and disruptive, then it will require a far more sophisticated debate about what we want the ABC to be than the current inanities we are all forced to endure.

It is a provocative question to ask: if we were starting afresh, what would be the best use of the over $1.6 billion Australia’s two public broadcasters receive each year to carry out their cultural charters?

The two broadcasters represent easily the biggest single government contribution to Australian cultural life. A deep rethink how the current production and delivery platform, and its associated media DNA, can be best exploited in an all-digital world could lead to some very different places.

That assumes a collective ability and maturity to focus on what from a user perspective the ABC and SBS can uniquely deliver that is unlikely to be delivered by a world where everyone has a digital microphone.

For example moving from the traditional proprietary media model to a much more open source approach, reveals a very interesting cultural option.

In that scenario the ABC acts as an uber Australian content and distribution platform, working with all digital formats — if you like, our own iTunes or Google play populated with citizen content. An open ecosystem where content creators could access some of that annual $1.6 billion, rather than having it locked up in old media bricks and mortar, as well as the audiences that would inhabit such an ecosystem.

This approach would also enable a more structured allocation of funds and resources to the things that as a country we hope for. Things which the collapse of the mass media model now become problematic. Children’s media, sustained investigative and accountability journalism, Australian scripted drama, local community news to name but four.

The last serious charter review of the ABC was by Ken Myer of the great Melbourne Myer dynasty  It occurred at the same time Hawke was angsting about his half channel.

More at The Mandarin: Mark Scott: innovation and efficiency at #OurABC

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.