ABC funding crisis: PSU fights "bland-out"


By Tracy Sorensen

SYDNEY — Public Sector Union representative Vivienne Colmer has warned that there will be a significant fall in the quality of ABC radio and television programs as result of funding cuts, job losses and commercial sponsorship if current government policy is not reversed.

The ABC will receive $488 million dollars this year, a reduction of between $16 and $26 million dollars in real terms. It has announced its intention to axe 160 jobs in maintenance and in-studio camera crews, which it says can be done without affecting programming.

The federal government is considering commercial sponsorship — advertising by another name — as a possible source of revenue. For that to go ahead, current legislation forbidding commercial sponsorship for the ABC would have to be changed.

The Special Broadcasting Service, not currently controlled by any such legislation, is already screening what it calls "enhanced sponsorship" segments between programs. Australian Airlines, the Legal and General insurance company and Cathay Pacific have all run advertisements on SBS.

ABC staff voted on June 12 to begin a series of wildcat strikes in an effort to stop the 160 job cuts. Last year, 350 jobs were lost. More job losses are expected to be announced soon.

With the Friends of the ABC, the PSU has been running a campaign for more funding for the ABC. This has included a fund-raising concert on May 26, which featured the 7.30 Report's Paul Lyneham fronting a band called Pacemaker and the Gerries.

"What we're talking about is losing people in the ABC that have got the skills to make the programs", Vivienne Colmer told Sydney's Politics in the Pub on May 24. "We're not talking about some sort of vague administrative fat that can be cut out of the system."

Media consultant Mervyn Smythe described the situation in New Zealand and Canada, where the national broadcasters have come to rely heavily on commercial sponsorship.

In Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Commission's television programs are ice-hockey-driven for two months of the year; current affairs programs are held off until important games finish.

Smythe recounted his experience a year ago, when he was in Canada

during the Meech Lake constitutional crisis. When he switched on the news at 10 p.m. for the regular current affairs program, "all we could see was some very large men on skates hitting each other with curved sticks".

In New Zealand, the national broadcaster has been forced to sell advertising over more and more of its schedule.

"Since 1988 a complete restructuring of television has taken place. It's been virtually complete deregulation. The broadcasting tribunal's been abolished over there, explicit local content requirements have been abolished and so on."

The programming went "down-market" in search of ratings to sell to clients. On a given evening, in a given time slot, the three NZ channels might be offering a "choice" between Sale of the Century, Neighbours and Family Feud.

Smythe quoted a New Zealand television executive who said that sponsorship was simply "advertising by another name". Operators selling sponsorship had to be able to demonstrate value for money to advertising clients choosing this way to promote their products over a range of alternatives.

Surprisingly, the BBC, during the Thatcher years, actually had a substantial increase in funding, although this revenue was raised by the regressive television licence levied on every household regardless of income.

Meanwhile, in real terms, funding for the ABC had stagnated at the 1974-75 level, "the last days of black and white television". There had been "no real long-term growth in funding", said Smythe.

Vivienne Colmer gave two examples of the drift towards ratings-driven policy in the ABC: Radio National's Daybreak, and ABC TV's The Home Show with Maggie Tabberer. Daybreak was an attempt to become a "bit more like metro radio, a bit like the commercial stations".

The Home Show was co-produced by a building industry group which had an interest in the home buyers and renovators market. Its easy-viewing, unchallenging, magazine-style format made the program attractive for resale.

In the "desperate search for the dollar" the ABC was shifting from its traditional policy of co-producing with the BBC and other national broadcasters, towards co-production with any groups that were willing to put up some money.

Is the ABC really "our" "independent national broadcaster", as the PSU's campaign material asserts? Views of those seeking to stop the privatisation of the ABC

and defend jobs differ on this question, and this was partly reflected in the discussion afterwards.

Some members of the audience challenged Smythe's views of what was up- and down-market, suggesting he was belittling those people, the majority of viewers, who enjoyed Neighbours and Family Feud. There was concern that the defence of the ABC as an "elite" institution was unacceptable.

Others pointed out that the ABC at least provided choice; programs available on the ABC were simply not available on the commercial media. The ratings-driven approach forced programmers to "bland out", as had been done with radio station 2JJJ.

"To maintain diversity and brave, innovative programming", said Colmer, "the ABC has to be adequately funded and free of advertising".