Calmly considering ABC cuts

abcThe announcement by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the ABC’s budget will be cut by $50 million per year for the next five years has generated predictable kerfuffle in mainstream and social media circles. Whether it will have any real effect on the broader voting public is much more questionable, but it’s still worth talking about in policy terms.

The predictable line by left-leaning commentators is that Tony Abbott has broken a promise, or even “lied” when he said before the election that ABC and SBS funding (along with health, education etc) would not be cut. In a tit-for-tat sense I guess that’s fair enough, because it’s exactly the same accusation that Abbott successfully prosecuted against Julia Gillard in relation to her backflip on carbon pricing.

Conversely, however, the defence that Gillard deployed (however unsuccessfully) applies equally to Abbott and the Coalition now. Circumstances have changed. Australia’s terms of trade, especially with iron ore, have turned decisively against us resulting in significant reductions in government revenue, significant parts of the 2014 Budget are still tied up in a chaotic Senate, and new military commitments to fight ISIL in Iraq have also added to the bottom-line deficit. In those circumstances, requiring all Commonwealth departments and agencies including the ABC and SBS to find modest savings is a perfectly reasonable and even time-honoured response.

Moreover, Minister Turnbull’s assertion that the ABC could find $50 million in savings through back-office reorganisation without any programming cuts appears to be correct, at least according to Paul Barry on Monday’s Media Watch program.

It appears instead that the ABC Board and management are just using this modest cut to its budget as a pretext to refocus efforts from some areas of existing programming into boosting and extending the Corporation’s online platforms, especially in the areas of delivery to mobile devices i.e. tablets and smartphones. They rightly see those as the media delivery platforms of the future, even though I suspect very few of the ABC’s existing older audience habitually accesses its offerings via mobile devices.

Moreover, it seems to me that enhancing the services delivered via ABC Online presents considerable opportunities to “monetise” Aunty’s output, thereby making it much less vulnerable over time to the budgetary depredations of an unsympathetic government. The ABC is prohibited from advertising on its free-to-air channels, and hopefully that will not change. However, to the best of my knowledge there is nothing preventing them from selling programming online. I’m not even sure whether embedding advertising in the online delivery stream is prohibited. If it is, perhaps lobbying for change might be one option the Board could consider. I don’t think the objections to advertising on its free to air channels have anywhere near as much force in the on-demand online context.

However, the real opportunity for making money lies in selling on-demand streaming and downloading access to the ABC’s extraordinarily rich and diverse programming content. I see no reason why the ABC could not continue with its policy of free on-demand access to all recently screened programs (e.g. over the last two weeks) through its iView service, with access after that time being provided on a “pay-per-view” basis and/or pay for permanent downloading of individual episodes or an entire “boxed set” series. It could probably be done relatively easily by incorporating an existing off-the-shelf e-commerce shopping basket/purchase system into the iView site.

That said, I’m pretty concerned by some of the actual mooted programming cuts said to be under consideration. Apparently we will have to wait until next Monday to find out their exact extent and rationale. However, abolishing the state/territory editions of 7:30 is particularly worrying in terms of democratic accountability. To the best of my knowledge no commercial TV station provides regular current affairs analysis of state, regional and local political issues. Only the ABC does so. Without it the public’s ability to scrutinise state, territory and local government will be much reduced. Nevertheless, it would clearly be possible to continue delivering in-depth state and territory political analysis without actually having a dedicated state edition of 7:30 each Friday. For example, it would not be technologically difficult to embed a state/territory story window into the national 7:30 program every evening or at least two or three times a week. Hopefully that is the way it will be handled. We’ll just have to wait until Monday.

And one last thing. If they sack staff at Classic FM it had better not be Emma Ayres or there’ll be trouble.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

Ken,

Gillard said she wouldn’t introduce a carbon tax and she didn’t. She introduced a price on carbon. Similar effects but a vastly different way of doing it. She merely did what both Howard and Rudd said they were going to do. Pretty easy to understand for some but not for others.

Abbott simply said no cuts to the ABC and SBS. That is pretty black and white!

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

oh and circumstances haven’t changed at all. Try looking at PEFO and then the latest MYEFO!
you cannot get the budget back into balance if nominal GDP is well below trend.
If nominal GDP returns to trend the budget ‘miraculously’ is in balance. Who would have thunked it.
The government needs a strategy to get back to trend nominal GDP growth and expansionary austerity is complete and utter claptrap.

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

then Ken,
you shouldn’t have talked about it!

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
7 years ago

Agreed.

steve from brisbane
7 years ago

The “hoist with his own petard” aspect of the current unpopularity of Abbott and his government is pretty delicious for those of us who always thought his attaining the leadership was the perfect example of the Peter Principle in action. And the Pyne intervention yesterday, while logically justifiable, was just such a bad political look

As for the ABC: yes, one would hope they prioritise the maintenance of current affairs programming of an evening on ABC1, including the incredibly high quality of Foreign Correspondent. Free to air commercial television has simply lost interest in serious coverage of politics locally, nationally and internationally.

Yet, I certainly have not found News24 a complete success. All 24 news TV has trouble filling in time, I think, and News24 does a very so-so job at it too. I would actually prefer that they did a better job with their news website, which I also find a bit underwhelming in its layout and content too; not updated fast enough, having to “drill down” too much to find topics one wants.

I really don’t know that there would be much viewer loyalty devoted to News24, so I doubt cutting it back would have much of a backlash.

Just my 2 cents worth…

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

Steve,

When I was in hospital I had plenty of time to compare ABS 24 with Sky News and the ABC was clearly much superior

steve from brisbane
7 years ago

That may be right, Homer. I just tend to not find any 24 hour news channels are all that great.

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

Well Steve that is comparing an absolute judgement with a relative one.

wilful
wilful
7 years ago

The predictable line by left-leaning commentators is that Tony Abbott has broken a promise, or even “lied” when he said before the election that ABC and SBS funding (along with health, education etc) would not be cut. In a tit-for-tat sense I guess that’s fair enough, because it’s exactly the same accusation that Abbott successfully prosecuted against Julia Gillard in relation to her backflip on carbon pricing.

I can’t believe you would try this one on, it is quite indefensible, somethign I would only expect in a News publication.

Firstly, it was what can only be called an iron-clad promise, no grey areas whatsoever. If your standards are so low for political honesty, then we cannot believe anything that a politician says during an election campaign. And yet you are now calling it a “lie” – you’ve got to explain why the scare quotes. You are saying it wasn’t a lie? if so, you’re lying. I don’t intend to be rude but it’s just cut and dried what has happened, you seem to be attempting (god knows why) to make it sound more complex than actually it is. And to say this is something only lefties care about suggests you need to talk to some rural Australians, not on twitter.

Secondly, circumstances certainly haven’t changed, except through Hockey and Cormann’s choices (mining tax, carbon price, super concessions, car lease rorts, PPL, Iraq/ISIS etc etc). There’s plenty of room in the budget to keep ABC fully funded.

And thirdly, it was a fixed price on carbon pollution, negotiated as part of a minority government, a very different scenario. Why can’t anyone remember Gillard’s next line, so often forgotten? ” but let me be clear: I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emissions trading scheme.”

Patrick
Patrick
7 years ago
Reply to  wilful

Perhaps because an insufficiently small portion of contributors to this site takes hallucingens??!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EyW7oFk6n8

The quote is at 2:21 in the linked video. She goes on to say that she “will tackle climate change” and “build the transmission lines” to connect renewable power to the grid. The closest she gets to wilful’s hallucination is a commitment to leading a national debate!!

Patrick
Patrick
7 years ago
Reply to  Patrick

Hallucinogens, dammit

wilful
wilful
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

He wasn’t “lying”, he was lying, and you clearly do give a stuff about it. As you should.

What departments are being cut by 10%? No, this is clearly political, not fiscal. And I’m no partisan barracker and it’s sad that it seems that one cannot criticise this government without being accused of it. We appear to be devolving to US style politics more each and every day.

As to where the Board and CEO will adapt their organisation, they seem to have a better handle on the media in the 21st century than any of their commercial counterparts in Australia. It’s pretty hard to provide more and better content with less money though. They’re clearly efficient, on any reasonable standard, and are doing the best with the funds available.

steve from brisbane
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

By the way, all sensible people should agree that Dr Who has become unwatchable. It should be dropped. I wonder how much the ABC pays for it. The fanboys who still like it are surely all nerds who already know how to watch it on line via the BBC, using Hola.

A tough decision, but fair…:)

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago

A commercial network would probably pick up Dr Who these days; it’s doing increasingly well in the US.

I will avoid a nerd war on the (uneven but overall magnificent) eighth season.

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Ken, you do not need budget cuts. I won’t go into the reason why as you will say it is off topic but Tony Abbot knew as much before the election as he dud after the election.
I am surprised you have gobbled this up

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

there ARE ongoing budget deficits stretching as far as the eye can currently see and that situation needs to be addressed. You can’t sensibly argue otherwise

Up to a point Lord Copper.

Homer’s quite right – there are specific and temporary factors putting the Budget into deficit. They do not “stretch as far as the eye can see” (try reading BP No.1 focusing on the actual figures in the Forward Estimates, rather than the Treasurer’s rhetoric), and it is not at all clear that “that situation needs to be addressed”. One can indeed sensibly argue otherwise.

Anyway closing the deficit early by spending cuts rather than reverting to 2007 levels of taxation is very much an ideological choice. And no one but a fool would think that the choice to put an extra burden of the cuts onto the ABC is anything but ideological too. This is another s**t sandwich the hard righties have forced Turnbull to swallow.

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Stephen did eventually admit on ABC radio that if trend nominal GDP growth arrived there would be NO deficit.

If he like the Commission of Audit wishes to forecast a long time of be;low trend Nominal GDP growth then he really should say why.

steve from brisbane
7 years ago

Sorry about the position of that last comment…

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago

Yep, Tony Abbott lied his head off about the cuts. (And the budget problems were mostly well-known at the time.) Are we good? OK. Now …

Potential program cutback targets that look interesting:

* ABC News 24: I’m the perfect target, but this seems to me not a compelling offering.

* All the output of that TV unit in SA, usefully highlighted by Chris Pyne’s petition: “The Cook and The Chef, Poh’s Kitchen, Dream Build, the Karta orang-utan documentary at Adelaide Zoo, The Beatles 50th anniversary tour documentary, a forthcoming country-based heritage restoration series and more”. I like Adelaide and Poh and the Beatles, but we don’t need more cooking and building shows, and the remember-the-Beatles market appears awfully well served.

* Classic FM. Unlike Ken, I struggle to find justification for this service. We have a volunteer station in Melbourne that plays classical music, and most of the time there’s sod-all difference between them and the ABC station. Plus, the Internet lets you pick the any damn niche you want, rather than just taking the Mozart opera that Classic FM is serving up at the moment. I would be comfortable with an array of digital services playing various genres, but various ABC supporters seem convinced that there’s a special magic in having presenters talk at some length about the music. (Ken, over to you.)

* JJJ. It’s supplying something that the free market would these days almost certainly provide if they weren’t crowded out.

* Lateline Business. Nothing against it, but I never see anything very special there. Really, financial information is easily accessible online. And are our financial newspapers and online services really doing so well that they need a government-funded competitor?

* The Drum. A site for online opinion that again, crowds out others – including Club Troppo. Just on principal, a government-funded body should not be running a site full of forthright political opinion unless there’s some shortage of other ways to get it aired – and that is really, truly not the case. (Interestingly, by not just exposing but permanently archiving the political leanings of ABC presenters, it also helps build up opposition to the ABC.) I can see a small sub-group of cases where a site like The Drum gives ABC domain experts a chance to go into greater detail about topics on which they are reporting, but The Drum has expanded far beyond that, for no good public policy reason. More news, less Drum-style opinion seems a useful principle.

Ken, I’m with you 100% on the need to continue strong reporting on state (and major city) issues, which seem increasingly neglected in favour of national issues.

But Turnbull seems to have a perfectly good point that the changing nature of media diminishes the ABC’s role in many areas.

steve from brisbane
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Removing the Drum would have the huge advantage of diminishing media output of IPA talking heads by about 90%…

PSC
PSC
7 years ago

Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to snigger at the right’s whining about ABC bias quite as much. And the less the IPA guys get their opinions out, the more credible they will seem. There’s a public good here you’re overlooking.

wilful
wilful
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

David, I mostly agree with you on your suggestions, but you say:

* JJJ. It’s supplying something that the free market would these days almost certainly provide if they weren’t crowded out.

Are you a listener? And do you listen to the commercial or community youth-oriented radio stations (in any part of Australia outside of Sydney or Melbourne)? There’s no way at all that JJJ is offering anything remotely similar to what is potentially alternatively available in most of Australia. They provide massive ongoing support to Australian music and would have a significant multiplier benefit to live music venues etc. Which is not to say they’re perfect, but they are distinctive and are absolutely not crowding anything out.

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  wilful

wilful, I’m interested to know what makes you so sure they are not crowding out any other providers.

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Ken, can you do me a favour and delete my duplicate comment here?

And I’ll buy you an iPod for Christmas.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

I deleted it.

Can I have the iPod?

Dave
Dave
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Better yet offer a fiio x1\x3\x5. Cheaper, higher fidelity, and more innovative. Whatever the heck innovative means. Checked the Frascati manual and I’m still unsure. Hell, where’s an imaginary car when you need it?

Lt. Fred
Lt. Fred
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

4MBS is a classical station in Brisbane. But you’re broadly right, yeah. You wouldn’t get anything in the bush, ever. No way.

peter
peter
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Yeah Classic FM wallpaper Ken. I just wish they’d pension off Margaret Throsby and her musical voyeurism. And agreed, keep Emma.

Dave
Dave
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Agree with abolishing the drum and others, except you’re showing your age bracket and tastes re jjj and classic FM. Wasn’t jjj or JJ started because of age brackets not of yours needing a medium not fulfilled by private operators? Public good no? Regarding classic FM, try listening to other stations with the same content on a long drive. And seriously how much does it cost to air content when most of the copyright has expired? Run classic FM with robots if you wish, but is it really serving the public to take it off air worth the utility some of us derive by listening? How much does it cost to run anyway? Last question not rhetorical.

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  Dave

Actually I listen to JJJ a lot, as do my kids. It’s pretty much the default FM channel in the car. It doesn’t have much that’s great, but I keep hoping to hear something really terrific, and occasionally I get lucky.

But it was launched (as 2JJ) in January 1975 and is now almost 40 years old. The media climate and market of the day were totally different to what they are now. The claim that no commercial station would play what JJJ plays, repeated for four decades, looks pretty tenuous nowadays.

I would welcome data, particularly from foreign radio markets, which would show this to be false.

Marcellous
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

David,

It’s clear you’re not a follower of classical music.

The MBS stations in Sydney and I presume Melbourne cannot match what Classic FM does and can do. Playing commercially available recordings and the odd recording these stations can make themselves is only a part of it. ABCFM’s live performance recordings/broadcasts and musical magazine programs are part of the infrastructure of the non-commercial non-JJJ sectors of the music scene in Australia and they provide them nationally. It also has access to similar non-commercially available material from other countries. (Forgive me if I self-refer to here.)

If these programs were taken out of the ABC budget there would be a powerful argument for putting them back in via any reasonable Arts subsidy budget, supposing you still think there should be such a budget.

The argument that people can find all this stuff somewhere on the web for themselves sounds fine in theory but doesn’t match how people actually live their lives, let alone the tech capacities of many older people. It’s no answer to the publicity function of these programs to say that people could find the stuff for themselves if they really looked.

Patrick
Patrick
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

I agree with that list, although I suspect the Radio stations offer the least value in cuts!

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago

JJJ and Classic FM illustrate one of the ABC’s important (and intended) roles. These are services that would definitely NOT be provided by the free market, not because they cannot in theory be viable but because of Hotelling’s Law. Free markets will not always provide diversity.

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

Quite right DD although JJJ was far better when it was merely Double Jay rock back in the glorious year of 1975!

in Sydney there is a distinct difference between ABC FM and 2MBS FM

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago

Someone who knows more game theory can correct me here, but my understanding is that Hotelling’s Law starts to break down as soon as you get more than two players, and the level of differentiation is pretty close to optimum for games with four players or more.

With popular music, we seem to have four players or more in most major cities.

Phil Clark
Phil Clark
7 years ago

This is so awesome to see the passion brought out by these cuts, I was wondering if any one cared any more. Appreciate that any publicly funded group should constantly persue relevance and effiecncies but seriously this has become a Liberal joke because as sure as God made little green apples two things always happens after a Liberal governments gets elected, Union bashing and cuts to the ABC. Independant public broadcastings is fundermental to a functioning democracy, the ABC should have more funding not less. I am seriously fed up with Liberal Aunty bashing trogladites hiding behind economic Vudu to justify pay back for telling the truth. My two cents.

David Walker
David Walker
7 years ago

Oh, and Ken … Emma Ayres appears to be off.

steve from brisbane
7 years ago

Despite what I said upthread about News24, I have been watching it tonight for Mark Scott’s Senate estimates appearance.

Bloody hell, does this government have a tin political ear or what? The optics of this are terrible for them, but they blunder on regardless.

I mean, it just looks ridiculous to be aggressively getting stuck into Scott, as smooth an operator as you will ever see, for saying that the government cuts means hard decisions and some programming will be affected.

Government members, if they had any sense, would be taking a sympathetic tone, while insisting it is necessary. Do they only gauge public sentiment towards the ABC via what Andrew Bolt and News Corp ranters say? To me, it looks like a completely unnecessary case of throwing petrol on the fire of public sentiment against these cuts.

rog
rog
7 years ago

Yeah well ABC RN is 1st class and its podcasts are downloaded globally.

Similarly ABC FM is the best globally.

Local ABC radio is a lifeline to many.

BBC has become a shadow of its self.

US radio is crap.

As Malcolm Fraser recently noted the present Govt is ideologically opposed to the ABC. You could argue that a weakened and compliant ABC would suit Turnbull well, when he becomes Emperor.

RexR
RexR
7 years ago

I think this recent brouhaha has been a salutary lesson for all but the most spiteful of ABC haters In the right wing commentariat. They savage the ABC at their peril.

Lt. Fred
Lt. Fred
7 years ago

You’re absolutely right that the budget situation has changed. The ABC has suffered large, crippling, cuts periodically every year for about twenty. I would absolutely support an increase in its budget in real terms. There’s no need to continue cutting services. If it’s deemed our press costs too much, raise Murdock’s taxes.

martin english (@martin_english)

Given that the charter of the ABC is directed towards providing programming (online or FTA), why is it that the first thing suggested is programming cuts ?

Mr Turnbull (and the rest of us) should be asking why it takes so many people (and so much money) to produce the 15 minutes of Media Watch a week. What DOES Mr Green do for his 6 figure salary, except the odd article on The Drum ?

With a combined annual budget of aproximately $1 billion, there is pleny of room for a 5% cut in expenditure at my ABC / SBS.

If they must discuss programming, then why is the ABC paying for Jimmy Fallon ?

Hth

Matt B
Matt B
7 years ago

The ABC could usefully allocate more resources to the best current affairs show around – The Sean Micallef Show – I can’t see why ABC should be immune from cuts and support the view that many are purporting that the ABC should maintain a local focus. The electorate was well and truely on to the pre-election spin around no-cuts and that’s why we’ve got an eclectic Senate -to mitigate the excesses

Paul Bamford
Paul Bamford
7 years ago

Ben Eltham nails it at New Matilda.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
7 years ago

On the issue of lying in the first paragraph: I think there is no doubt that Abbott lied. And bearing in mind his bullshit about Juliar it seems only fair to point it out. But he lied throughout the entire compaign because he banished the laws of accounting. He continually said he would not have any new taxes and that he would not cut anything and he would cut the carbon and mining tax AND remove or reduce the deficit. He was arguing that 1+1=3 throughout so anybody who believed him was an idiot. And I don’t think anyone did really believe him. They just voted against the ALP fiasco. But it is surely good for democracy that Abbot should have to eat poo sandwiches for a good while

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4 years ago

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