The ABC struggles with the digital era

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, October 8, 2013

NEVER mind the quality, feel the width. ABC 1, 2, 3, News 24, podcasts, digital radio, Facebook and Twitter. Like the Soviet Union’s mining poster boy Aleksei Stakhanov, ABC boss Mark Scott just can’t shovel the stuff out fast enough.

The Stakhanovite cult was briefly regarded as the salvation of the moribund Soviet economy in the 1930s. Local functionaries were encouraged to push for ever more ambitious targets until the glut of poor quality size 12 boots became too large to ignore.

2013-10-15 04.19.40 am

For all its conspicuous adoption of new gadgetry, there is an uneasy sense that the ABC is making rather a hash of it, or maybe that should be “hashtag” for the ABC’s obsession with the narcissistic web-based communications tool known as Twitter is little short of ridiculous.

A a crass and offensive sexual reference to the Prime Minister on a Twitter stream linked to the ABC’s Q&A website last month, was merely the small change of corporate indiscretion.

Whose head might roll, we wonder, for such a foul and potentially libellous slur? Nobody’s, apparently, for the message, like thousands of others every week, is published automatically with an obscenity filter that does not seem to work particularly well.

The ABC’s anti-Semite filtration system needs a good overhaul too, judging from the recent complaint from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry about anti-Jewish comments the corporation published on Facebook.

Whether online, offline, or beamed profanely into our living rooms, no mistake the ABC makes seems to be anybody’s fault. Even the managing director thought a digitally faked picture of a respected political columnist in a compromising position with a dog was tasteless and undergraduate. But what can he do about it? Nothing, for he is merely the corporation’s editor-in-chief.

Commercial publishers and broadcasters have learned the hard way that defamation lawyers feast on unmediated social media comments. Not so the ABC, which appears happy to put taxpayers’ funds at risk for no conceivable public purpose.

Twitter is an open public forum, available free to anyone who signs up. It is mystifying why the corporation should feel inspired to rebroadcast its monotonous chat, save for the thrill of living dangerously.

Meanwhile, the ABC’s traditional TV audience is falling away steadily. The corporation’s annual Newspoll survey found the proportion of people aged over 50 who thought that the ABC was doing a very good job has fallen for the past few years.

Slightly less than a third of Australians are classified as “light/non-users” of ABC TV and almost half are “light/non-users” of ABC radio. “Light/non-users” are those who claim to watch “zero” hours.

In 2001, when television networks first adopted the OzTAM black box audience measurement system, the ABC’s one and only TV channel had a reach of 73.9 per cent – that is to say slightly less than three-quarters of all available viewers tuned in to the ABC for five minutes of consecutive viewing in any given week. In 2012, the reach of the flagship ABC 1 channel was somewhat less than half of the available audience – 46.2 per cent.

Arguably a fair comparison these days would be the aggregate weekly reach of all ABC TV channels so as to capture, for example, those who chose to watch the repeat of the British fly-on-the-wall documentary Misbehaving Mums to Be on ABC2 on Saturday night.

The grand total for metropolitan areas is still lest than 60 per cent. Some four out of 10 Australians could not be faffed with giving ABC TV five minutes of their time in any given week.

The corporation’s annual report last year was full of excuses about changing technology, multiple channels, broadband internet and the rest. Yet in Britain, where public broadcasting faces the same challenges, the BBC’s reach is 86 per cent, despite the higher measurement threshold of 15 minutes continuous viewing.

It is little wonder that older audiences are falling away since the ABC is being driven by the cult of youth. Triple J has become the symbolic training ground and the model for the corporation’s entire output.

So what of the online audience? The market is developing, but the indications appear to be that the ABC’s dedicated online community is relatively small, reaching barely one in seven Australians.

The particular political and cultural proclivities many complain about in the ABC are real enough, but bias is merely a symptom of an agency that muddles along without a clearly articulated sense of purpose, under management that seldom acknowledges failings, let alone assumes any responsibility to correct them.

The noble aspiration set by the ABC’s former chairman Richard Boyer, as a broadcaster that “may stand solid and serene in the middle of our national life” has suffered a setback from which it will be difficult to recover.

The case for a major review of the ABC’s operations, leading inevitably to amendments to the ABC Act, is unanswerable.

The last substantial review, headed by Alexander Dix, was commissioned more than 30 years ago by Malcolm Fraser’s government, long before the internet in an era of just five analog TV channels.

Understandably the ABC will be nervous, perhaps even hostile, about a review commissioned by a Coalition government, which is why Malcolm Turnbull as Communications Minister is the best person to call it.

A growing number of those on the unsentimental Right would like to the see the ABC sold off, but that would be a mistake.

Despite its transparent failings, the ABC largely retains public trust and is a significant national institution with a history and a reputation worth defending.

It will need to be rebuilt from the bottom up, however, if it is to operate in the public interest in the digital age.

The extent of its responsibilities, and the limits of what it should attempt to do, must first be prescribed by parliament, in amendments to the ABC’s 81-year-old act.