The Guardian July 11, 2001


Of rice and margarine and your ABC

On April 29, 15,000 members of the public  ABC shareholders  
gathered on the Sydney Opera House steps to protest against funding cuts to 
the national broadcaster by the Federal Government. The Guardian has 
published a number of the contributions of speakers at the protest. The 
following is the contribution of actor John Howard, one of the stars of 
Seachange.

Play School, The Planet, Poetica, Spectrum, Message Stick, AM, PM, Big 
Country, even Seachange. Our ABC is extraordinarily diverse. It's 
fascinating and entertaining, informative, frustrating, silly, musty  in 
my case sexy/funny. It's all of these things and it's in trouble because 
our ABC is chronically underfunded.

It's so poor that in any given week well over half its TV programs are 
repeats. A lot of people have been very critical of poor old Aunty for some 
time. They call it elitist and biased, snobbish, anglocentric, entrenched, 
old fashioned  which in my view is a bit like saying reading books is so 
passe. Okay, so what's the ABC supposed to be? According to its Charter its 
purpose is to provide: Innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services 
that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain 
and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community.

It's a noble idea, a noble ideal. But the question is, is it possible 
today? Other speakers a bit later on will talk about other bits of Aunty's 
corporate body. I want to concentrate mainly on the area that I'm involved 
in and that's ABC Drama.

Aunty is so poor it doesn't even have enough money to meet the same 
broadcast quota and drama content requirements demanded of our commercial 
networks. ABC TV admitted very recently that its stock of new programs has 
fallen by 32 per cent in the last five years.

According to Mr Shier [ABC managing director] it should have some 1500 
hours in stock and it's only got 440 hours. That's less than a third of 
what it needs.

And you can bet that bugger all of that is new Australian drama. This 
decline has brought about the strange situation over recent years where on 
some evenings the ABC broadcast more prime time British shows than the BBC.

In the seven days from last Friday to next Thursday, ABC TV will have shown 
four and a half hours of Australian drama in prime time. By that I mean 
between 6 pm and 12. Of that four and a half hours, two hours are repeats. 
In the same time incidentally, Channel 7 will have shown four and a half 
hours of drama, all of which is brand new.

I'd give you the figures for 24 hours but I can say that whilst I was going 
through the TV guide, because I was so surprised and dismayed I couldn't 
stop laughing and then I got so depressed I didn't want to tell you about 
it.

The constant restriction of the ABC's funding over the last five years, 
combined with its recent restructuring, has brought the old girl to a 
crisis point.

Staff morale, as you've heard, is low; drama output is low. Last year we've 
seen a commissioning editor replaced by two others at five times her 
salary. Curiously enough, Sue Masters who commissioned Seachange is now 
with Channel 10.

The commercial broadcaster who turned down Seachange and wanted to turn it 
into a half hour Baywatch-type program on behalf of Channel 10, now works 
for the ABC.

Last year we saw eight managers replaced by 22. Apparently if you want to 
hire one of the state of the art editing suites that the ABC has you'll 
have to deal with three managers.

The ABC's policy of outsourcing has caused many staff to take voluntary 
redundancies only to be hired back later on contracts for an independent 
producer at twice the price.

The Gore Hill wardrobe department, for example, once numbered 18, now there 
are two.

State of the art digital studios and editing suites have been built by the 
ABC where there are few if any programs ready to use them. In an effort to 
gain revenue from them the ABC hires them out, for example, to advertising 
companies to make ads.

But it's not all bad news. The ABC has almost finished filming John Doyle's 
wonderful six part series Changi, and though they've taken some persuading, 
some considerable persuading, to give them their due the ABC has provided 
enough money and time to do John's great scripts justice. For that I say 
bravo.

The problem is there are no new dramas ready to go into production after 
Changi is finished filming in two weeks time.

So the ABC is forced into a situation where it must either buy drama or go 
into co-production with independent producers. Unfortunately here we hit 
another snag. According to Nick Murray, the President of the Screen 
Producers' Association of Australia: The ABC is now the leader in a rights 
grab being the first network in the world to attempt to licence six free to 
air runs, up from three runs eight months ago. In other words, they put 
Seachange on once and then they'll show it to you another five times. It's 
not going to happen in the case of Seachange but you get the idea.

It's also the only network in the world to demand distribution rights 
without paying for them. Relations between Aunty and the Screen Producers' 
Association are so prickly that the independent producers have asked the 
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate.

And there I was thinking it was only petrol and banks. According to 
independent producers: The ABC seems increasingly driven by its commercial 
activities ahead of its charter roles in broadcasting and cultural policy.

Now, I don't know if the new content is responsible for this, but the other 
day when I went to Coles in Bondi Junction I saw a Seachange margarine. I 
presume that's the content that they're talking about. Last Tango in Paris 
Seachange. I'm sure that this situation is exacerbated by Aunty's lack of 
money.

I know for a fact that some of the ABC management have great ideas and just 
no money to be able to achieve them. So it all comes back you see to our 
Government whom we vote in or out according to whether they please us.

Now, of course the whole story isn't all doom and gloom. Some of Aunty's 
bits are going great guns. The ABC Online site is in my view a joy to 
behold. It's entertaining, informative, comprehensive, a little bit slow to 
update, but on the whole I use it every day and I thank Aunty very much for 
it.

But you see, not everyone can access the internet. For most of us, ABC 
Radio and TV are our only access to Aunty and it's the gradual erosion of 
these services that's the most galling because an under-funded or overly 
commercial ABC compromises our own culture.

In this so-called information age, and in every other bloody age as far as 
my reading of history tells me, small nations like ours need strong and 
inspired leadership to ensure our cultures never come second.

I agree with Warren Fahey who wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald: 
I want the Government to stand proudly and shout about what we have and 
continue to create it right here in Australia and I object to the way the 
ABC has been manipulated and its staff unnecessarily humiliated by this 
Government.

This Government is our Government whose Minister for Trade recently 
suggested he might make it easier for the US to sell its TV and film here 
by removing the Australian content quota in return for them buying more of 
our rice. Apart from the fact that even the Rice Growers' Association don't 
see much sense in it, how much more US TV and film do we need here?

I think we've been obliging enough. We watch more American TV and film here 
than any country outside America. We make 10 times more US film and TV here 
than we make of our own Australian stuff.

Now, I utterly support Mr Shier's campaign for more funds for the ABC. But 
in this case, given his reputation, I think that he is cowering and being 
very shy.

For God's sake, how long has it been eight cents a day for our ABC? Has it 
been 10 years or 20? Surely given the value of those eight cents these days 
and the value of the Australian dollar, we could afford to bump it up to 20 
cents a day or even 30 cents a day.

If this Government won't support Aunty, then let's get one that will. And 
let them clearly understand that our public broadcaster holds up a mirror 
to our national soul. It must see with our eyes, listen with our ears and 
speak with our voices from our hearts.

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