The 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.