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Non-commercial ABC serves the common good


On Wednesday, ABC managing director Mark Scott (pictured) warned Senate Estimates that content diversity would suffer if the ABC was privatised. This follows the Victorian Liberal Party's recent revival of public discussion of selling the ABC and SBS to help retire public debt.

Diversity of content refers to program material that caters for those who might be called the 'media poor'. That includes audiences in rural and regional Australia, or with specialised cultural or educational interests that commercial media deem unprofitable.

The ABC has a charter obligation to serve these 'unloved' audiences, and to 'take account of the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community sectors' by not duplicating what they offer.

Scott said accepting advertising 'fundamentally changes the nature of the content you create, the content you purchase and deliver and fundamentally it dilutes the impact and the quality of the broadcaster'.

But it's more than that. Maintaining the distinction between ABC and commercial content is just as fundamental, because the ABC's own efforts to compete with commercial media can undermine the diversity of its content. 

To this end, the ABC might do well to withdraw from participation in audience ratings surveys in favour of juries that are committed to fostering diversity. Ratings surveys are mainly relevant to commercial broadcasters because of the link between audience size and profitability. They are not geared to measure specialist audiences.

Yet ratings are a significant influence in ABC programming decisions, and their increasing prominence in the news affects the public's perception of whether the ABC is successful and should be maintained. Currently there is no comparably robust and prominent measure of the diversity of the content. 

If ABC and commercial media management use the same tool to measure the performance of their content, it follows that the programs are likely to become similar. A good case will emerge for selling the ABC because it is not focused on offering alternative non-commercial content.

Critics of the ABC have a point when they urge the removal of 'a government-funded goliath that is interfering with the market in the media landscape'. The ABC, they argue, 'has overstepped its raison d'être'.

In its early decades, it was usual to refer to the ABC as 'the National Service', with the implication that its programs were broadcast in the national interest. 'National' distinguished the ABC not from local broadcasters, but from the commercial stations whose legitimate business it was to maximise audiences and make a profit.

The future of media in Australia will be much different to what we know today, and if the ABC has a future, it will be about serving the common good rather than competing for audience share. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, ABC, media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mark Scott, privatisation



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Existing comments

Dear old 'Aunty' ABC - so stolid, respectable, staid - all those lovely virtues, lost forever if commercialisation runs rampant! I'm also a big fan of SBS which I probably watch a bit more than ABC. Reading and knitting also compete for my attention and quite often they win. So, please ABC and SBS, don't be driven by ratings - the 'unloved' need you.

Pam | 02 June 2013  

How many times do we need to see Government, Business and Regulators let us down. We need the media more than ever to preserve our democracy and way of life. Please people, get involved and support our ABC. It's all we have left.

Jeff Gormley | 02 June 2013  

My first overt political act as a high school student was to write to Sir Allen Hulme then Post Master General about the Communist Sympathies of th ABC. WE are still dished up a menu of left liberal propodganda by virtually every ABC programme. When was last time you heard a pro Western story. ABC Radio in Berisbane at least has beeen captureed by teh middle ground and boith sides mget a say. STeve Austin for GEenral Manager of ABC.

Andrew Jackson | 03 June 2013  

I like the concept of the ABC (commercial free but acting under a parliamentary charter) but I would prefer it were funded by a licence system. Joe Public already pays for commercial TV - the advertising cost is included in the price he pays for advertised goods. He also pays by by the pain of having commercials interfere with his enjoyment of a show - even if it is a bookie spruiking odds. The ABC should face the same challenge as Pay TV and have to attract viewers prepared to pay a licence fee for quality news & information, and entertainment..

Uncle Pat | 03 June 2013  

Are we talking ABC radio ot TV or both. The mention of SBS means at least TV. I know people that not only will not watch ABC but won't even look at abc programing. Strangely they watch and enjoy abc programs as repeats on commercial channels! What's more, when told it is on old abc program they refuse to believe it but keep watching.

Fred | 03 June 2013  

I will march to save ABC from being sold, as will many I suspect. ABC is frequently biased and only lately has Tony Jones moderated his left leanings. There is a long tradition of leftist culture which becomes a little tiring (Kerry "that's one for us" O'Brien). The standard of news has slipped, it now has opinion pieces far too long and boring I'm finding it easier and easier to turn it off. I'm tired of the chatty style - that's why I watch SBS news. Having said that, l still think we need an innovative and challenging ABC - all the arts programs, Landline etc ABC should set a high standard as the commercials will follow and do - The ballroom dancing program, Playschool, Gardening Australia, Business programs - excellent and all copied by the commercial networks. Btw my new favourite is The Eggheads. I'm tired of the Libs selling off public assets to balance the books. For all it's faults, I love the ABC and it only works by being independent. Save and improve our ABC.

Jane | 03 June 2013  

Who needs any other channel when you've got the variety and quality of ABC shows? It's hard to believe such quality can be free to air and commercial free. And there's nothing about the programming. (anyone seen the ABC2/3 BBC series Misfits? - wow!)

AURELIUS | 03 June 2013  

I find it equally distracting to portray the ABC as a staid Aunty as to portray it as a nest of Communists. Neither of these cliches get close to a correct representation of the ABC, either in its present form, or ever. Everyone knows that the ABC is the only major media body that is fearless and independent in its analysis of politics, doesn't show favours, and has access to the rich heritage of Australia and knows the meaning of history. Only fools give away their riches for a mess of pottage. The arguments of the economic rationalists are bogus, there to serve a small sectional interest of our society.

Philip Harvey | 03 June 2013  

As long as ABC tv allows a journalist, supposedly comparing a cooking show to express her left wing support of abortion on demand, the organisation should not be surprised that a significant number of Austraslian do not support it. Then again I do not want a life devoid of Classic FM's many great qualities..

grebo | 03 June 2013  

Well said, Michael. The unreflecting Right see the ABC as propagating a sort of pinko-leftie "agenda". The budgetary considerations, I believe are either a minor issue or a smokescreen, depending on the relative honesty of the speaker. The ABC has made some awful mistakes and it should not be taken as gospel truth. The ABC; BBC & Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have an honourable tradition. In the USA it is the public interest radio which fulfills the same function. As someone who was (a) born in England (b) did some postgraduate studies there at Oxford and so supposedly appreciates the wellsprings of our culture I do hope Tony Abbott doesn't go along with the Hard Right on this one. Could we expect the same impartiality from News Limited et sim? I very much doubt it.

Edward F | 03 June 2013  

Greetings. I contributed to the fund run by GetUp! to run an ad in support of our ABC. We need a strong Australian broadcasting network that delivers to all at NO cost (admittedly we pay via our tax dollars). No licence system please. I refuse to pay upfront for pay TV or any other system. The ABC delivers, warts and all.

Jenny Esots | 03 June 2013  

ABC has been home base for me almost since inception of radio. My husband and I rarely watch commercial TV and never tune to commercial radio. Information and broadening of horizons is what we seek. Stimulus of ABC radio and TV + SBS TV ( TV ususally only evenings ) fill our space. Our days would be poorer if no e.g. ABC FM Classical music. The Country Hour is a daily must. Please do not think of ads or sale or our evenings will be resticted to reading books .and lstening to CD's.

Anne | 03 June 2013  

@Philip Harvey: I'll no longer think of ABC as a much-loved relative - no more cliches! I think I'll lose something important in doing that though.

Pam | 03 June 2013  

Thanks Michael. This issue has to be kept alive. To lose the sort of program that, say, Radio National provides would be a disaster for our our cultural, imaginative and intellectual life.

Joe Castley | 03 June 2013  

The Andrew Jacksons and Freds etc. of the world can go watch favourite programs on any other TV station (of which there are many. The ABC and SBS are the only major media bodies that are fearless and independent and don't show favours. They access a rich heritage of Australia. I prefer SBS and ABC. Neither leave me with the mindless 1000 yard stare seen on the face of so many . SBS and ABC produce excellent coverage of factual information: documentaries: indigenous content: and SBS shows outstanding foreign films. They are free of the political bias and 'culling' by the Murdoch press and other 'adventurers' into the monopolisation of information. If ratings are a problem, change the method to more accurately reflect the feelings and needs of the large segment of the Aussie audience that watches SBS and ABC. They complement each other. Critcs make use of emotive titles of outdated cliches e.g. 'Aunty' and Mr/Ms Harvey's re- 'Communists'. Grow up. Change with the times. ABC and SBS have. Like 'Jane', I'm tired of the way Major Political Parties sell off public assets. Soon there'll be nothing left in the parlour. You don't like it - try switching channels.

Dr Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 03 June 2013  

Important article. The ABC has already been commercialised and insidiously dumbed-down by program managers. On the ABC local radio, information and debate are replaced by comedians and entertainers. Ratings may be partly to blame, but underlying it at the ABC are threads of an extreme anti-elitist ideology. Its probably also that in the general dumbing down many of our decision-makers now don’t know that the word ‘discrimination’ can have a positive meaning.

david moloney | 04 June 2013  

I can't bear the thought of life without the ABC. I listen and watch the ABC only - and some SBS. I can't stand commercial stations. Please Aunty, stay with us, as you are! Commercial channels are right wing politically. Aunty, because it's government funded, is balanced and honest - gives all sides of such positions. We need that. Otherwise, we might as well be American.

Louw | 07 June 2013  

I find this comment disappointing, naïve and in any assessment of national broadcasting utterly irrelevant. The commercial world, the conservative world has always despised national broadcasting (ABC, BBC, CBC) because it, by its charter, asks questions of government, other media and other forces within our society. It challenges, it embarrasses - check the influence of Four Corners over the decades, This Day Tonight, 7.30 Report et alii and you will understand why the power seekers, the greedy people in our often benighted nation want to abolish this rich, creative history - and I haven't even mentioned features, dramas, documentaries that for so long have set the standard.

John Nicholson | 07 June 2013  

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