The commercialisation of the ABC


I begin with a confession: when I worked for the ABC I participated in the 'axing' of a couple of programs, one of which was very popular with a dedicated group of listeners. So I don't come to this story as a complete innocent.

ABC TV recently confirmed it is cutting The New Inventors, Art Nation and Collectors.

Is this just an example of programs having run their course? Well, no, according to Director of TV, Kim Dalton. The reasons are 'falling audiences ... increasing financial pressures ... and a strategic commitment to prime-time programming'. He also said that the ABC 'proposes to reduce the level of staff' in all states except, apparently, the ACT.

Most viewers will probably shrug their shoulders and say 'Well, it's sad to see my favourite show go, but that's the way it is.' But the reality is that there is a deeper agenda running here and it is important for those who value the ABC to bring it into the light.

The clue is in Dalton's comment that the ABC has not abandoned so-called 'factual entertainment'. He mentions two new 'initiatives, one with Screen West and one with the South Australian Film Corporation'. In other words, non-internal ABC productions, but outsourced material that the ABC simply broadcasts. Here lies the rub.

What we are actually seeing is the ABC 'outsourcing' more and more material to commercial production companies who make programs that, after their ABC broadcast, can be 'on-sold' to pay-TV and other channels, both here and overseas.

Increasingly the ABC makes few of the programs it broadcasts; it transmits material made by outside interests rather than produce its own.

This is why we are seeing so much lightweight 'infotainment' now on the ABC — that is, when we're not watching endless re-runs of British cop shows. Commercial interests, by definition, don't make risky programs or explore unpopular issues. So the ABC regularly broadcasts programs that are neither cutting-edge nor different to commercial TV. It's essentially the same old pap you can get anywhere.

Yet, as a public broadcaster, the ABC has an unequivocal legal obligation as a publicly-funded organisation to produce material that is not produced by commercial operators, especially in areas like culture, art, religion and science.

Glenys Stradijot of the Victorian Friends of the ABC comments that 'The ABC is envisaged as a producer of programs of cultural value and intellectual integrity. Instead it is being transformed into a platform for carrying commercial content.

'This is privatisation by stealth ... TV programming has become too populist and less innovative — the entertainment less stimulating, and factual programming more lightweight.' Precisely!

Kim Dalton and ABC General Manager, Mark Scott — and presumably the Board of the ABC – don't seem to understand that their approach undermines the whole purpose of public broadcasting.

The ABC is not just a 'platform' for broadcasting watered-down infotainment from the commercial sector. It is taxpayer-funded precisely to be an independent, non-commercial production house of quality programming that is not available in the commercial media.

To achieve that you need trained, experienced staff who work to priorities that are ultimately determined by the ABC Charter and the legislation governing the Corporation as a public entity.

But with the winding-back of staff, resources and in-house production what is actually happening is that ABC managers simply commission content from external commercial sources that then make programs according to their priorities, not the needs of the public or the requirements of the Charter.

Religion is an area that is already being hard-hit by outsourcing. The best you can expect of commercial interests 'doing' religion for the ABC is a show like Judith Lucy's Spiritual Journey, which has been pretty superficial and, after two episodes, hit and miss at best.

Given the parlous results of 'outsourcing' all who value the ABC need to support the call of the Friends of the ABC for a public inquiry. This is the only way that those who value public broadcasting can call ABC managers to account. As the FABC says, 'Scott and the ABC Board seem to have forgotten that they are the caretakers of this great national institution which belongs to the people of Australia. They have no authority to commercialise it.'

I couldn't agree more. 

Paul CollinsAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor — religion for the ABC. 

Topic tags: Friends of the ABC, Mark Scott, Glenys Stradijot, Kim Dalton, commercialisation, public broadcaster



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Existing comments

Soon there will nothing that identifies (what was) the spirit of Australia!
Kay Bushnell | 05 August 2011

I could not agree more. In fact it was only 5 mins before I found this article that I had emailed the ABC protesting that Talking Heads and and The Hopman Cup had gone and that Compass is on too late on Sunday nights with no re-run that I can find. Prorgrams like Australian Story and radio Encounter, Life Matters, Conversations with Richard Fidler really make for worthwhile listening but the very thought of watching TV programs on a computer screen does not motivate me at all.
ABC is losing touch with its audience - the people who matter.
Narelle Mullins | 05 August 2011

Paul Collins is absolutely right. Some programs have been outsourced for years, and in many cases one can tell they are not informed by the values laid down for the ABC as a public broadcaster. Not all viewers will realize this, but some of the programs best exemplifying these values are semi-hidden programs like Art Nation, Can We Help? and Collectors. Now these are to disappear or have already gone, in favour of outsourced material which will inevitably be more commercial in flavour. The ABC will further abandon its role as a great training institution.
Rodney Wetherell | 05 August 2011

The ABC also has no right to back the pseudo-intellectuism, left wing bias they maintained for many years. It belongs to all Australians, not just the socialist 'Woodstock" crowd of left wing naturalists and their social engineering programs.
Trent | 05 August 2011

It is already tragic that so much of our news and entertainment media place profit above all else -- except, sometimes -- political bias.

The good health of any democracy depends on availability of news and information and the continued interest of people in those matters that will gravely affect their lives. This includes politics.
The continued independance and apppropriate funding of the ABC is essential.
Bob Corcoran | 05 August 2011

i watch the ABC because the show's are real, the other channels with their 'barbie doll' approach are insulting to the general public whom i am sure believe that we have no intellect whatsoever.
rhonda | 05 August 2011

Well would you believe it , the ABC is becoming "to Populist " .
I only wish that the ABC was populist enough to give all Australians something back for their taxes ,not just a few cultural snobs and left intellectuals . Why should all pay for something that the ratings say they dont watch .
The ABC is not relevant to modern Australia and should go fast so the taxpayers can invest in something important .It is a joke
john crew | 05 August 2011

In order to maintain an audience, the ABC has to maintain total commitment to provide both sides of any topic.

The extreme left wing bias over recent years has alienated much of conservative Australia - who at the very least want to have their position fairly represented. This is no longer happening in any area and as it continues, viewing audience drops. I agree that Compass would do well to be screened earlier on a Sunday night - it is too late for many and so loses a wider target group. Outsourcing may have contributed to some of this problem!
Jane | 05 August 2011

Since the ABC is a branch of the Labor Party, it seems there's an inter-factional brawl brewing....

What's happenning in the ABC now follows as always what has been happening in the BBC for years.
Ian | 05 August 2011

Funny, isn't it? I get really annoyed at the constant imbalance on Q&A with right wing "me me me" commentators invariably outnumbering those with a heart for social justice. I obviously see the bias differently from some of the other respondents above.
ErikH | 05 August 2011

The ABC has been right wing biased for several years, not left wing. Almost every news bulletin starts with "The Federal Opposition says ...". Ever since Howard stacked the ABC board with right wing attack dogs like Albrechtsen and Windschuttle, all objectivity has gone.
Mike H | 05 August 2011

Look out for what is happening to Radio National. Australians pride themselves that their greatest resource is their intelligence, that marks the Clever Country. There are different sorts of intelligence, but the Thinking intelligence measured by IQ gives 10% of the population as high intelligence, and most of us as ‘average intelligence’. Maximum ratings in media for entertainment and information are for the majority ‘average intelligence’.
The ‘high intelligence’ minority is not being fostered. Radio National of the ABC was originally aimed at fostering intelligence. It reaches now at most 2%. It needs to reach 10%. It cannot have maximum popular ratings.
It is a danger to Australia that current Radio National policy is downmarket. In many ways today the programming is made to downgrade thinking. Its ‘thinking’ programs are being cut into by promos. Innovative programs that rely on non-sequential voices and music are increasing in number. They serve few of us.
Everyone should realise that we need at least one broadcasting station that sets a standard for high intelligence, which is not judged by average maximum ratings.
The anti-intelligence push in policy is very strong, stronger than left-right attitudes of any particular presenters.

valerie yule | 05 August 2011

Good article Paul! Comments that the ABC is biased to the left wing and Labor Party and intellectually elitist are nonsense.

The mainstream ABC and especially ABC1, ABC24 and the local radio 774 have been 'dumbed down' to compete with the privately owned commercial radio and TV. There is very little quality listening and viewing on all these media. Coverage of news, current affairs, politics, sport and the arts is generally mediocre and superficial. I believe the reason for this is that we are an anti-intellectual society. Most people in Australia have a poor knowledge and understanding of things such as philosophy, history, literature, cinema,theatre, the visual and performing arts and theology.

The ABC does provide very good quality programs on Radio National and ABC FM, but these stations are attract approximately 2.5% of the radio listening audience.
Mark Doyle | 05 August 2011

The ABC has been right wing biased for several years, not left wing. Almost every news bulletin starts with "The Federal Opposition says ...". Ever since Howard stacked the ABC board with right wing attack dogs like Albrechtsen and Windschuttle, all objectivity has gone.
Mike H | 05 August 2011

I switched off Q & A several weeks ago - no longer able to endure the flippant but continual bias of Tony Jones. He facilitates laughter at the right and takes far more from the left. Funny though! That is how I see it. Obviously others see things through their lens - we all do! My point, is that it has to be independent - have commentators prepared to listen without continual interjection. Lee Sales is another point - she too has a definite lean to one side of politics which shows. Kerry did too - but he could follow it up by hard hitting questions at both sides. It is an interesting debate! My comments refer to ABC 1! It would be good to see them cover more rural topics - like the selling off of South Eastern Forests, the selling off of Australian land to foreigner! Too much emotion and not enough facts.
Jane | 05 August 2011

Currently most outsourced productions are financed by several parties, with the ABC often only a minority contributor. Taxpayers money from other government agencies (Screen Australia and various state bodies) combine with a plethora of overseas and pay tv operators to make up budgets. Thus government funds originally intended to support an independent production sector alongside the public broadcasters, now support ABC and SBS production slates. This leaves all producers worse off; ABC producers lose jobs and join the independent sector, intensifying already cut-throat competition.

Independent producers like to see themselves as viable small businesses. In reality they are often poorly remunerated outworkers. Typically they have little R&D capacity, and exist from one hard-won commission to the next. A handful of larger companies are making programs for both overseas and Australian audiences. Productions with uniquely Australian features and concerns, or those aimed at meeting niche needs of the kind indicated by the ABC’s charter, are incompatible with their business plans.

More outsourcing will further reduce Australia’s miniscule capacity to make programs that serve the national cultural interest. And it will waste years of public investment in the national broadcaster, its intellectual capital and its capacity for serious and creative R&D.

norah wolfe | 05 August 2011

It seems the ABC has only its "Friends" to rely on, when the board and government should be making sure the charter is followed.
Rosemary Drabsch | 05 August 2011

Hands off our ABC all those who are for dumbing down the programs. The commercial stations can provide enough of the rubbish. It is only the ABC which has up to now had the ability to give us programs without dumbing down and manipulating the truth without fear of offending sponsors or those with power to manipulate the truth as the commercial stations need to do to keep their advertisers and owners happy!

Hey ABC listen to your audiences and give
us what the ABC has been always in the past-
reliable - unbiased news and programs
inspire and inform - Viva the ABC!!!
we can never get on commercial channels
that inspire as well as entertain and what's
more no interuption from noise enhanced

Viva the ABC but an ABC that the people
can trust - after all as paul collins has
reminded us - "it belongs to the people"!!

Helen Gibson | 05 August 2011

I do hope something practical comes of Paul Collins's article. There have been some wonderful Australian dramas; the ones on now are similar to those that can be seen on commercial channels. At times SBS has far more interesting programmes, albeit not usually of Australian origin.

I'm heartily sick and tired of the old accusation the ABC is left-wing. Those who assert this obviously do not want the status quo to be questioned. Let them simply listen to/watch the circuses that commercial radio and television provide. The ABC should be able, fearlessly, to put another side to the popularist views presented by commercial media.

Unfortunately this has been made more and more difficult since the Hawk government and was especially undermined under the Howard government. My latest disappointment is new 7.30. I know Lee Sales is an extremely competent interviewer yet she mostly reports and provides no stimulating or contraversial interviews.

The problem today is not 'lefties' but rather fundamentalists, usually of the right wing variety.
Maureen Strazzari | 06 August 2011

Petition for campaign to return the ABC to Charter. Add your vote and comments here:
Douglas | 06 August 2011

Public broadcasting sends different messages to different people. To the Trents and Janes of the world it is riddled with left-wing 'isms'. To the Mike Hs, it leans on the side of Genghis Khan. However odious comparison might be, the ABC is at least a beacon of reasonableness in a torrid terrain of extreme right wing media landscape.

For example, compare The Gruen Transfer with, say, The Chasers and you can see where each of the protagonists comes from, politically speaking.

While I'm not a great fan of Q&A's painful attempt to pander to every political opinion, I find Tony Jones an excellent political journalists elsewhere.
The fact that the conservatives have been trying to muzzle the ABC alone is an indication of its worth If nothing else it provides a bastion (of sorts) against the tyranny of a Murdoch global media dominance.

By all means, send a message to Scott that he ought to stop going down the commercial (and profitable) track by outsourcing programs. But at least be thankful that our public broadcasting system gives all of us the opportunity to air our dissent. Something no one receives in, say, an Alan Jones program.

Furthermore, with this country about to collapse on the right field, it's not a bad idea to have some perceived left-wing opinion to balance (excuse the mixed metaphor) our Tea party-like political diet.
Alex Njoo | 07 August 2011

I object strongly to the axing of great shows such as The New Inventors. While I consider that the new concept is not as good as in prior years, it is still a worthwhile show.

Also, please put Dr Norman Swann on earlier. I'm an oldie who like his bed.
It's not too often I agree with Paul Collins, but I do on this occasion.
We need enlightening shows on our publicly funded TV.
Robert Cashman | 08 August 2011


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