The ABC’s cultural confusion
From The Spectator, April 26, 2014
Thanks to the miracle of wireless, the postmaster general informed parliament, it will soon be possible for ‘naked blacks in the jungle to listen to the world’s best operas’.
The year was 1932 and James Fenton was making the case for public broadcasting run by ‘thoroughly capable persons… with no axes to grind.’ Programmes from London would be ‘bottled’ on the latest Blattnerphone recording apparatus and broadcast at a convenient hour, providing a service that would ‘deepen our Empire spirit considerably’.
Fast forward 82 years to the bottling of Peppa Pig, imported from the UK, rebroadcast on the ABC4 Kids channel and downloaded 19 million times last year from ABC iview. If any further evidence were needed of the ABC’s deep cultural confusion, it can be found in its love affair with Peppa.
In her homeland she is a proud and independent creature who earns an honest living on free-to-air commercial television. She makes well over a billion pounds a year for the independent British production house, Entertainment One.
In Australia, however, Peppa bludges off the taxpayer as part of managing director Mark Scott’s strategy to make the ABC ‘the baby-sitter of choice for every parent in Australia’.
Is this really what the ABC was put on earth to do? Where’s the public purpose in using public money to fatten up this cheeky little grunter? Is it the role of the ABC — or indeed any other public institution — to promote an anthropomorphic celebrity to kiddies while flogging its ephemeral merchandise through the back door? (The Peppa Pig Quilt Cover, price $39.99, will be arriving in ABC shops in June, incidentally.) In these fiscally restrained times, shouldn’t this particular little piggy be going to market?
The internet has changed everything: the way consumers watch, read and listen; the amount of competition; the evaporation of brand loyalty and so on. Yet the ABC carries on much as before, trapped in a culture of entitlement.
Audiences are fragmenting; a quarter of a century ago ABC TV’s reach was 70 per cent, now it is more like 45 per cent. Scott may or may not have been right when he predicted that abolishing the ABC would lead to ‘civil insurrection’. Yet the era of content overload is gradually painting the ABC into a corner; there are far fewer tasks the ABC is uniquely equipped to do. The ABC has thrown itself into the digital century with only the haziest of plans and a charter drawn up for the analogue age. The last serious attempt to define the reason for its existence was in 1982, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Bill was drawn up on the recommendation of the Dix review.
Back then the ABC ran one of just five TV channels and broadcast for an average of 14 hours a day. The internet was science fiction, digital broadcasting was a long way over the horizon, social media was known as talkback radio and programmes were recorded on degradable magnetic tape.
The case for a new inquiry is unanswerable. The corporation is ripe for reform. Its programmes are supposed to ‘contribute to a sense of national identity’ yet its flagship TV channel screens more repeats and more foreign content than it once did. In 1998, there was more than 33 minutes of Australian content in the average hour of prime time broadcasting on ABC TV and 27 minutes and 41 seconds of that was first release. Last year, the hourly prime time quota of Australian programmes was less than 28 minutes and barely 22 minutes of that was new material. Public broadcasting in Australia costs more per head than it does in Canada, yet on CBC 82 per cent of programming is locally produced.
The ABC is screening more content than ever before on multiple channels, yet the atmosphere of busyness masks a deeper insecurity. Scott increasingly defines the ABC not in terms of what it is but what it is not. He regards it as a counterweight to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp rather than a broadcaster for the whole community. The ABC’s central contradiction is enshrined in its charter. It is instructed to broadcast both ‘programmes of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting’ but it struggles to do both.
In 2011 Scott described the ABC as ‘a market-failure broadcaster’ in an interview with the Guardian, saying: ‘If you believe the arguments about public service broadcasting, it doesn’t mean you have to be offering something to everybody.’
The ABC should be considered ‘part of the greater public good’ providing ‘benefits for the society as a whole’ unrelated to individual consumption. ‘A childless couple’s taxes support the school system, the healthy pay for public hospitals as well as the sick,’ he argued in a speech to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Society in 2009. ‘Together we fund national parks, although we may never set foot in one.’
Yet such a selective brief is at odds with the ABC’s mandate to broadcast to the general population. Its formative chairman Richard Boyer said the ABC should stand ‘solid and serene in the middle of our national life, running no campaign, seeking to persuade no opinion.’
The current chairman Jim Spigelman expressed a similar sentiment at the National Press Club in December, arguing that the ABC should ‘promote social cohesion, nourish our national memory and identity, enrich our communal life and provide a forum for debate in a democratic polity as a whole.’
The internal contradictions in Scott’s arguments suggest a deeper internal confusion. Is the ABC, as Boyer once described it, a service for all Australians, ‘a much needed centre of national unity?’ Or is it, as Scott once put it, ‘part of a thriving media ecology’, like the Royal National Park where it barely matters to the rangers whether anyone turns up at all?
Until the charter is rewritten to make this clear, and legislation is redrawn to empower its directors to keep the corporation on a straight path, the ABC will continue to do its own peculiar thing.