Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1514      17 August 2011

ABC TV – dumbing it down to sell it off

ABC staff voted a fortnight ago to launch a public campaign against outsourcing and other attacks on the independence of the national broadcaster. Members of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth were incensed at the announcement of the axing of another two programs – Art Nation and the New Inventors – and redundancies that could eventually nudge the 100 mark. They called for an inquiry into the shedding of production capacity that has left the ABC struggling to live up to its charter that demands content free of commercial influence.

The CPSU meetings weren’t the first signs of unease or resistance. Sydney-based production staff had already written to ABC Managing Director Mark Scott denouncing management’s continued predilection for outsourced production at the expense of in-house programs.

“We believe that the current bias shown for external production is based on the false premise that we are less efficient,” the letter said. “External studies have in the past demonstrated this is not the case. Before the ABC further dismantles internal production we urge you to address the questions that were presented to you in the open letter of 27 May 2011.”

The Friends of the ABC were also ringing the alarm bells. “The ABC was 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,” Glenys Stradijot of the Victorian branch of Friends told the media.

The Friends of the ABC statement observed that as more and more of the ABC’s content is produced by companies that also sell to the commercial outlets, the ABC increasingly resembles its dumbed down and less innovative commercial counterpart. The fear is that if the ABC runs what increasingly look and sound like a brace of commercial channels, pressure will build to do the “logical” thing and privatise them.

Sean Dempsey – long-time ABC journalist, broadcaster and former staff-elected director – agrees there is a deliberate privatising strategy at work. In a piece in The Age last week he went deeper into the process by which the national broadcaster is being transformed into a shell of its former self. The ABC’s co-production partners naturally think about the “bankability” of their ventures with the ABC. They have to assess the chances of selling their “product” to pay TV and other commercial outlets down the track.

“What the public is getting from this model is Hallmark TV, Reader’s Digest documentary or light-weight, sexed up and formulaic drama pitched at an AB demographic,” Dempsey wrote. “Is Crownies – the latest so-called ‘bold’ outsourced drama – the best we can do? It reminded me of Nine’s Underbelly: a bit of shootin’ and tootin’ and a hell of a lot of rootin’. The taxpayers who fund the ABC deserve much better.” Dempsey also wants an inquiry into the syphoning of public dollars into corporate bank accounts by means of co-funding and co-production.

Management’s defence of the process and the relentless slide in quality argues all sides against the middle. Managing director Mark Scott would have it that nothing has changed fundamentally; that the ABC provides “market failure” content, i.e. the more analytical and independent content that the commercials won’t touch.

ABC director of TV Kim Dalton dismisses warnings about mounting redundancies and the loss of the ABC’s skills base. He said last week that the decision to axe Art Nation and New Inventors was down solely to declining audiences. Presumably the same was the case for Spicks and Specks, Talking Heads, the Hopman Cup coverage and Can We Help? As the axe continues to swing and jobs are lost, people are worried that other “non-bankable” content could go. There are now only two TV production staff left in Perth. How much longer will rounds of the WA Football League continue to be broadcast?

Mr Dalton argues that with flat-lining funding from the federal government, changes have to be made to preserve capacity to deliver independent prime time content. The argument has some truth in it. Since the days of the Hawke and Keating governments – which didn’t appreciate sections of the ABC’s independence in covering Gulf War I – the national broadcaster has lived with declining real levels of government funding. Something had to give. But to maintain that there are no dangers in the outsourcing trend as long as it safeguards prime time content, is pure spin.

It appears management is not going to stick up for the integrity of the ABC. It is up to the staff and the community. Friends of the ABC collected 10,425 signatures to a petition calling on the broadcaster to rebuild its production capacity to ensure that it can develop a range of high quality programs and shed its dependence on outsourced production. It is plain that the Australian people want the ABC to remain as an independent platform that will carry their stories, their faces and their voices.  

Next article – Stand by our man!

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