Diversifying the ABC

Author: Tony Moore is Commissioning Editor of Pluto Press and currently completing a University of Sydney doctorate in Australian cultural history. He was member of the ABC National Advisory Council between 1986 and 1988 and a program maker in ABC Television from 1988 to 1997, working in documentaries and current affairs)

The ABC is Australia's most important cultural institution. Through its 5 radio networks, one television network and its online service it performs the difficult jobs of informing and entertaining us as a nation, while trying to cater to our diversity of interests and perspectives. In appealing to what we have in common the ABC must also be mindful of our differences in a way that the commercial free to air media never will, obsessed as it must be with massing us together for advertising purposes. Historically the ABC has taken the risks with new ideas, talent, stories and aesthetics, while maintaining a bed rock of journalistic standards vital in a democracy.

Despite extreme pressure on funding and political intimidation from a hostile conservative government there have been some fine achievements at the ABC in recent years. In TV current affairs the insightful and amusing Insiders, in arts documentary the pop culture history Long Way to the Top, and the poignant opera drama hybrid about black white relations One Night The Moon. Comedy has been groundbreaking and subversive; with stand outs for me, Kath and Kim, CNNN and the Glass House, the last passing the crucial test of earning the wrath of Senator Alston. ABC Online continues to add value to programs and invite audience participation on the smell of an oily rag. 2BL the Sydney Metropolitan station beat the commercial radio ranters with a breakfast program that is intelligent, charming and entertaining. Radio National continues to stimulate those Australians interested in complex and original ideas. Triple Jay remains a vehicle for emerging musos, comedians and journos and is cherished by young people in the regions and the bush as away to participate in cosmopolitan youth culture. Childrens drama like Saddle Club and the perennial Play school win huge loyal audiences among the under 12s.

But the Board and senior management have not always responded with wisdom or vision to the funding squeeze. Executive salaries and bureaucracy have grown while program makes feel the pinch. The current affairs flagships Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent have been trimmed at a time of global turmoil. More insidious, ABC Enterprises is expanding its reach into merchandise related television production. The escalating outsourcing of production lacks transparency and suffers the same problems of value-for-tax payer money that plagues other public/private partnerships. The one-size fits all decision to syndicate the sport wrap from Sydney is part of a trend to grater homogeniety on ABC TV. Fears that the ABC is skewering its appeal and resources to a so-called 'core audience' of the over 55s, was borne out by the axing of the innovative digital networks Fly TV and ABC Kids. This short sighted move does not make strategic sense in terms of winning new generations to the ABC and giving the ABC a head start in this new media. The closure lost the ABC a hothouse for young creative talent. Add the axing of Behind the News and the ending of cadet training and Aunty could be said to be devouring its own children.

While the public debate about the ABC focuses on the Howard Government's vindictive funding cuts and ham-fisted attempts to bully the national broadcaster with allegations of bias I want to focus on micro structural and cultural problems in the corporation inimical to creative cultural work that have intensified under the Coalition's Board. These are:

  • internal accounting and management structures that have centralised control of TV content in the hands of a few senior executives. This trend is worst in television, where it has seriously eroded program maker professional autonomy of the sort that existed in the 70s and 80s.
  • the growth of bureaucracy and private management consultants at the expense of in house production staff, leaching scarce resources from where they are most needed
  • too homogenous a view of Australian culture, imposed through centralised commissioning and the limited talent pool brought in from outside.
  • insufficient consultation with audiences about programming -signified by an over -reliance on commercial ratings- and inadequate community participation in ABC corporate decision -making
  • lack of transparency and clear criteria in the outsourcing of content creation to large commercial players and the cottage industry [check report]
  • the elevation of Business Services within the Corporation in tandem with the ascendancy of its former head Russell Balding to Managing Director, and creeping internal commercialisation via ABC Enterprises.
  • and finally a problem that has plagued a number of public institutions under Howard - the shrinking of a sense of national vision and ambition at the ABC, exemplified in the decline on our screens of flagship national projects in documentary or drama that typified the Hill era.

Many of the ABC's structural problems stem from the cult of mangerialism. This is a kind of public privatisation that combines internalised market forces and cost savings with a top down control structure that gives all power to the bean counters. This systhem threw up an ex accountant to be managing director of our premier cultural institution. The Report of the Australian National Audit Office, Corporate Governance in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, prepared under Shier's regime identified a problem of managers working up to the apex of the corporate pyramid, rather than down to stakeholders. Most senior managers, relatively new to the ABC, were ignorant "of specific features of the Commonwealth's accountability framework ? and do not perceive any major role for themselves [in public accountability] outside their line responsibilities to the Managing Director". Translated to TV one commonly hears that shows are green lighted because the Director of TV likes them, rather than reference to audiences or Charter obligations.

ABC radio, while not immune to managerialism, is exempt from the worst excesses because the hands-on and immediate nature of its medium. But in TV it has reduced the creative freedom on the workshop floor that leads to experimentation and risk.

When I criticise the ABC, especially television it is as a long-term supporter- someone who sat on the ABC Advisory Council and had the privilege of working in the ABC as a doco maker for nine years and of agitating through my union for internal reform. To realise its creative and democratic potential those of us who cherish the ABC must move on from an essentially conservative approach to a bold strategy of re-imagining and strengthening the ABC for the new century.

Labor has already demonstrated commitment to a truly impendent ABC through its promised introduction ABC Board selection Committee at arm's length from the Government. A new Labor Government should look forward to helping the ABC meet these challenges, not just through increased funding, but through special targeted initiatives to encourage new program ideas and approaches, and to open up the ABC to diverse creative talent and audiences, incentives for new media experiments and services, and measures for community involvement in the national broadcaster. A Labor Government will also have to help the ABC move on from some of the negative changes that have occurred under the coalition-most notably centralisation of creative decision-making, the culture of control, and creeping commercialisation. The goal will be to repair and re-energise the ABC to be the vital creative force in the nation.

Post Broadcast Era

The challenge for us today is rethinking the public sector from the midst of the information revolution and increasing cultural diversity. Media is moving beyond a crude dichotomy between the old elite public broadcasting and the old commercial broadcasting that appeals to the lowest common denominator. A 21st century media is concerned with audiences in their diversity, satisfying those niche interests that help to make us unique and encourage a vibrant, complex dialogue between cultures. Luckily the Charter supports this approach in Part 6 1 (a) which commits the ABC to "broadcast programs that contribute to a sens eof national identity and inform and entertain and reflect the cultural diversity of , the Australian Community."

The Charter requires the ABC to provide innovative services. Everyone supports innovation, but real innovation often offends, angers or leaves one under whelmed. Perceptions of what constitutes 'quality' may depend on particular cultural literacies which nowadays are not shared by a community criss-crossed by aesthetic and attitudinal divides. This is the real challenge of a divergences of opinion based on age, geography, ethnicity or class that Australia is still to deal with.

Melbournians know well what its like to watch Sydney Broadcasting Corporation. Because of the existence of SBS, the ABC has never really come to terms with its Charter responsibility to reflect Australia's ethnic diversity. Non-anglos still appear on ABC TV shows as well-meaning tokens, loudly justified by an ethnic plot development, rather than as a natural part of the Australian mix. Ethnic duifference is presented as an unusal disruption to the anglo mainstream rather what it is- the major narrative of contemporary Australia. Even if many staff are republican the ABC remains the great defender of British culture in Australia and persists in maintaining a colonial deference to the BBC as the benchmark for quality. The auditor identified a low use of the ABC by lower socio-economic audiences. The ABC is good at exhibiting working class individuals and communities as subjects with problems to be diagnosed or eccentricities to be celebrated, but always they are presented as 'the other' to an assumed middle class audience. Better to allow some programs to emerge from working class cultures via creative people close to these communities as occurs in the UK with Royle Family and the work of Ken Roach. Pizza on SBS and the films of David Caesar show the way forward.

Public broadcasting has always sought to identify the tastes of the tertiary educated upper middle class with a universal notion of 'quality' that is seldom tested. 1940s House is good and the Big Brother House is bad, although both are unreal reality programs. The trouble for reformers is that the ABC gives most of us what we love - sober, abstract discussion of public affairs; BBC dramatisations of classic literature; truly intellectual radio programs; and bucolic soaps that buy into our childhood memories. A diverse society with many different ways of seeing de-stabilises this once sacrosanct notion, throwing open the parameters to a wider, range of ideas, aesthetics, personalities and stories. For me there is not one simple truth that wills et you free, but many truths.

Digital TV and Narrowcasting

The ABC needs to keep apace with new media technologies that treat audiences as diverse, fluctuating communities of interest, rather than coerce them into one mainstream, such as digital multi channeling.

In my view the policy response to audience fragmentation and increased lifespan is a second television channel of equal status to the existing one, aimed at the under 40s. This would expand on ABC kids and Fly and could kick in digitally when the analogue signal switches off. An ABC Gold and an ABC News and Current Affairs station could follow.

Latham Government could fund a Youth TV network as a special initiative similar to the Whitlam Government's establishment of 2JJ in 1975, a radical experiment to create a contemporary music station for young people. [The station was to give space Australian music not given air play by commercial radio locked into top 40 play lists and advertising. The station sought to recognise diversity among young people, and to intersect with the mushrooming independent music sector. It is now a matter of record that 2JJ was mid wife to the vibrant Australian music scene of the 80s and 90s, and was an agent of cultural renewal for generations of Sydney-siders in the areas of comedy, art and politics as well as music. 2JJ succeeded largely because it was given autonomy from ABC management, to do its own thing.

Youth and Generational change

One of the biggest challenges identified by the Auditor in 2002, but first identified by the ABC National Advisory Council back in 1986 is the haemorrhaging of the younger audience. While ABC TV's share of viewers 55 and over and children has increased since 1990, its hare of viewers 18 to 39 has declined by 13%. All the evidence shows younger people are watching less and less free to air TV. All the evidence shows young people are watching less and less free to air TV that looks to common denominators. As noted by the auditor the

'loyal' ABC viewer is making way for the discriminating

conditional viewer, who makes an individual choice from the array of media options at their disposal - the internet, books, videos, games, pay TV, radio, cinema, mobiles, chat lines, magazines, and commercial TV- on the basis of personal interests and passions. Media that seek to treat the under 40s as one group, to attract them on the basis of what they are assumed to have in common, will have no audience.

The Auditor advised that attracting this demographic be made a priority and some excellent move shave been made in this direction by the new, young head of Arts and Entrainment, especially in the vibrant comedy area. The big problem for the ABC is not so much youth but how it caters for younger adults who want more intellectual nourishment as they age but in a different way to older people. What is now needed is an injection of a youthful spirit combining intelligence, innovation and play into other often earnest areas like documentary, news and current affairs, science and arts. Insiders is on the right track allowing journalists to appear as the funny, astute stirrers some of us know from long lunches and pollies to get up on soap boxes Domain style. This is a refreshing break from the poe-faced autocue delivery of the 7.30 Report. Long Way to the Top, the hugely successful history of Australian rock n roll showed how ideas and fun can work together.

The ABC has won significant and enthusiastic audiences, especially among the young, when it combines intelligence with an appeal to Australian's sens eof the carnivalesque. The ABC has a strong tradition in the carnilvalesque beginning in the 1960s with TDT and spanning Aunty Jack, Norman Gunston, 2JJ, Countdown, Alvin Purple, Gillies, the D-Generation, the Big Gig, Roy and HG, Recovery, Race Around the World, Front Line and today Glass House, Cath and Kim and CNNN. By the carnivalesque I mean a sense of play, humour, irreverence, mocking of authority and destabilising hierarchies, profanity, vulgarity and bawdiness, and the mixing of genres and bringing audiences and artists together. This was the quality that Sylvia Lawson believed distinguished the Bulletin of the 1880s and 90s, and made its readers feel that they owned it. The carinvalesque percolated through the early 70s theatre and film revival. It is a larrikin quality cherished by all classes of Australians and one the ALP is more comfortable with than the Liberals. The carnivalesque is one way by which the ABC can be popular while being innovative and subversive and since Aristophanes it is an important way in which truths have been expressed.

Drama

In recent years the ABC and its private co-production partners have failed to live up to its potential as the power-house of Australian fictional story telling, especially when compared to the BBC.

While this sorry state has something to do with funding - especially the loss of skilled personnel in forced redundancies - it's also caused by a failure to engage with story tellers in the wider creative community and obsession with a narrow range of genres and styles. In a small cultural market like Australia talented storytellers across mediums and craft skills need to be encouraged to collaborate and cross-fertilise.

ABC drama needs to move out of the narrow pool of TV drama writers it uses, and try novelists and other types of Australian writers on scripts as they do in the UK. Give talent like Christos Tsiolkas and Nicki Gemmel a burl. Move beyond the palm beach/Balmain/Bondi Triangle and find young writers and directors from a variety of regions, class and ethnic backgrounds as does the decentralised BBC.

As Australian TV drama is a bit of closed club compared to the publicly funded film industry which is porous to new talent a Labor Government might explore ways of bringing the two together, in made for TV films for example. Young film directors should be given gigs at the ABC. There needs to be much more synergy between the Australian cinema and the public TV stations the tax payers funds. Both ABC and SBS should be given preference in bidding for publicly funded s Australian feature films.

The collaborative net can be thrown wider to bring other art forms into the drama mix. A collaboration between the ABC, OZ Opera, MusicArts, Dance Films and musicians Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody and composer Maireed Hannan produced One Night the Moon, a tragic tale of a lost child in the outback condemned to die because of the impasse between white and aboriginal world views. This strange hybrid brilliantly directed by Rachel Perkins and enjoying limited theatrical release shows that great art is within the ABC's grasp when it goes outside its comfort zone.

Historians have Australian stories begging to be told. We need more historical drama like Timeless Land and True Believers. The Nineteenth century Australian history and literature is a mine of great stories and characters. Why leave the past to the BBC?

Drama needs to be freed from the shackles of British realism. In 1986 I recommended to the Board that the ABC embrace the imaginative genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and the gothic that enjoyed popularity with teenagers, young adults and working class audiences. Why should the Americans make all the unreality? George Miller and Peter Weir had enjoyed great success with The Last Wave and Mad Max, and there was no reason this success could not be transferred to TV. Yet the ABC sniffed at such low entrainment, preferring to churn out formulaic series about police rescuers, doctors , lawyers, diplomats and firemen, leaving the field of cinefantastique clear for the Americans and commercial networks to exploit in the 90s. The New Zealand government backed experiments in the low art of horror and fantasy, nurturing schlock director peter Jackson who went on to stun the world and become the new Walt Disney to a generation of young people. Australia's crime and fantasy writers are waiting for an invitation.

Docos

Under the last labor Government the ABC had a documentary department that made outstanding historical and social documentary on a par with the British and American imports that now grace our screens. Carefully researched and fearless docos of the calibre of Cop It Sweet and Nobody's Children made both Labor and Liberal government's squirm in the late 80s and early 90s. The funding squeeze from 1996 led to most docos being outsourced to the independent sector or Film Australia, the dept was absorbed and the ABC lost a centre of excellence and the public a critical window on the nation. Today the new super factual dept ABC makes bitsy, underwhelming magazine programs like Catalyst and the occasional interesting half-hour doco series like Dynasties or Our Boys but what has been lost is the big essay style, nation-defining flag ship docos like the BBC still makes.

Carefully researched and intelligent essay style documentary costs money and here a Labor Government could make a difference with a History or National Significance fund for Australian documentary within the ABC. Other ways to get funding and ideas for documentary is by encouraging ongoing partnerships with other public creative bodies such as the Australia Council, Australian and state Film bodies, museums, Art galleries and universities.

Audiences

The Auditor criticised the ABC for relying on inappropriate and statistically confused commercial ratings services such as OzTam and the Neilsans when comparable public broadcasters in Europe employed sophisticated qualitative and qualitative methods to engage their audiences in programming. The Auditor advised in the strongest terms that because the Charter enshrines terms like 'innovative', 'high standard', 'sense of national identity' , 'cultural diversity' and 'multicultural character' of the Australian community the ABC could be expected to have a methodology that would enable consistent reporting to Parliament in relation to these concepts. The Report advised the ABC to undertake new measures to understand why its share of the audience is changing and to guide strategies to increase its appeal to disenchanted groups such as young adults and people outside the cities.

The ABC has replied that it will introduce an "Audience Appreciation" service similar to that at the BBC. This is to be supported but audience research needs to play a bigger part in commissioning. There is no substitute for originality of ideas but program-makers have everything to gain from a more meaningful dialogue with us. Ideas can be tested with its target audience when inevitable doubts are raised by Commissioners about a new show alienating mums and dads or the core audience. Decisions over style, format, story or timeslot can be made with deep knowledge of the audience rather than on the basis of anecdote, instincts or personal bias. The easiest way to wean the ABC of commercial ratings is for Parliament to insist on more sophisticated data related to Charter obligations in the ABC's annual reports.

Diversity of Opinion

The title of this lecture series,

"The Truth Will set you free" begs the question, whose truths? I

spent long enough in documentary and current affairs TV to know that the

Truth can vary depending on the story we chose to cover, who we chose to interview, how we edit that story, the music, the narration and images we use.

The Coalition's erroneous obsession with left bias at the ABC assumes that there is only a two way debate in Australia between the left and the right that mirrors the divisions in the House of Representatives. If only life were so simple. There is in fact a vast array of positions and perspectives on any given issue, with the various fractions of the left and right joined by religious, ethnic, regional and even the postmodern interpretations so disdained by the right and left. While many of us believe the ABC could be a lot more diverse, the fact is that day after day, story after story, ABC current affairs and factual programming give a far greater range of viewpoints than any other media outlet. What is needed is more criticism of all received wisdom, not acquiescence in the federal government's line Better to seek a greater heterogeneity of commentators , arguments and ideas- out of that complexity will come mature debate and a more informed audience.

Recycling

Too much ABC material is left in the vaults. We need a public access archive museum and serious recycling into the education sector. The model could be the TV Museums in new York and LA. The ABC could use ABC Online as vital tool for content delivery in school and university education, recycling research, interviews and programs.

Corporate Governance

Labor has already moved to ensure a Board independent of the Minsister.

As one Board member is elected by staff perhaps one could also be elected by the audience- the campaign should be enlightening.

The National Advisory Council , presently selected by the Board, should definitely be elected by the public.

The talent in the ABC needs to be trusted to make professional judgements and to take risks. A more imaginative Board would flatten management, lose the consultants and re-invest in creative and production staff. The commissioning power currently wielded by the Director of television needs to be dispersed down by returning to the old system where the department heads and commissioning editors are in charge of their own schedules and executive producers are trusted with editorial authority over their own autonomous units of excellence in subject and genre areas as occurs at 4 Corners and Radio national. This will restore creative friction to the ABC.

As so much ABC employment is through a contract system, diversity principles and advertising requirements can be ignored in favour of a 'mates' system that limits the gene pool. There are precedents for targeted recruitment initiatives. Under the Hawke Government special funding programs for Aborigines and the long term unemployed were used to bring employees from these backgrounds to work on special new series like Beatbox and BlackOut. Far from token these series broke new ground and were popular with their target audiences.

Outsourcing

Intersection with outside community is a good thing, but the ABC needs to spread its patronage widely among individual independent film makers and production houses and not to just favoured commercial players at home and overseas. These days the cultural energy is in the cottage industry.

Outsourcing has the potential to burn the ABC and needs to be governed by legislated rules and benchmarks and be transparent to the public and parliament. It matters less whether programs are made tin house or out than that this public commissioning is spread equitably and those taking the money are accountable and deliver value-for tax-payers dollars.

The Liberals vision of ABC TV is as a politically neutered middlebrow user pays service for older middle and upper class specialising in British imports and homogenous anglo- fare. Through Telstra the government already has a share in the pay to view British service on pay TV. Commercialisation is gathering pace through the expansion of ABC enterprises that is starting to make its own programs tagged to merchandise sales. The Mansfield Inquiry ruled decisively against advertising on the ABC but the ads are there anyway courtesy of ABC Enterprises, Trojan horse of privatisation that Labor should watch.

Corporate Sponsorship

Corporate sponsorship, last floated by Christopher Pine and Robert Manne, will undermine whatever diversity the ABC still has. SBS style between-program advertising will by necessity influence what programs get commissioned, even if editorial independence is guaranteed. The ABC bureaucracy is unfit to deal with the commercial temptations that limited advertising brings with it, and the same favouritism that currently dominates co-production and outsourcing will see 'uncommercial' program proposals that upset the market for commodities ignored, before the government even gets the chance to attack them.

Conclusion

The ABC can never be all things to all people, but it can be the means by which different Australians talk to each other and a tremendous creative energy in our community

  • one that will always be ignored by the commercial sector - can be enfranchised.

Historically Labor stands for robust public institutions, the advancement of democracy and a lively Australian culture, which it understands as diverse. Imaginative reform of public institutions like the ABC is the radical alternative to the crude dualism of market forces or a sentimental clinging to the status quo.

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