ABC budget cuts will hit media innovation

The ABC, known for innovating in digital media, is facing increasing budget pressure. Sarah_Ackerman/Flickr, CC BY

Of the many media organisations making the transition towards digital, the ABC is one of the most advanced.

So in the face of a $254 million budget, or “back offices” cut, as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull calls it, its worth exploring if the ABC can continue to perform its role in shaping the digital media market.

We have already begun to see the ABC landscape shift with the announcement that The Roast and reports that state editions of 7.30 will be dropped in 2015, with more programming announcements expected shortly. But ABC managing director Mark Scott has repeatedly acknowledged the media landscape is shifting towards the digital environment, presenting opportunities for future audiences.

It is estimated that 71% of Australians access the ABC’s television, radio and online services, with approximately 6 million unique visits to ABC online properties each week. Interestingly, the ABC also attracts 498,900 active users of the ABC flagship app each month. The online audience is significantly growing, based on the ABC’s Webtrends data, that recorded a shift from 5 million unique visits at July 2013.

Can a leaner ABC concentrate its efforts on the digital environment and continue to innovate for Australian audiences?

The answer lies in whether the ABC can deliver distinctive innovation. Being a distinctive innovator involves identifying areas that are not viable for commercial operators, developing innovative programming and services to address that market, and sharing those innovations with the media industry as a whole.

A great example of distinctive innovation is the ABC’s iView catch-up and on demand television service, that no doubt inspired other services such as the SBS’s On Demand service and Channel Ten’s tenplay.

The ABC is also a national cultural facilitator, demonstrated through ABC Pool, a collaborative project that engaged Radio National audiences to co-create radio documentaries, and ABC Open which is responsible for developing regional Australian’s digital literacy and storytelling capacity.

Recently, ABC2 developed and broadcast one of the most innovative projects to emerge from the public and commercial television broadcasting environments. #7DaysLater was a seven episode series that experimented with using the audience to not only write the brief for the comedy series but to help with its production.

ABC’s #7DaysLater Series Trailer.

Incubating innovators

By engaging audiences via social media platforms such as Twitter, Google Hangouts and Instagram, Daley Pearson and his crew encouraged users to contribute script ideas, costume designs, plot themes, punch lines and invited them to be talent on the episodes.

The project enlisted the talents of some of the most influential and emerging YouTube producers including Nick Boshier (Bondi Hipsters, Beached Az), Alex Williamson, John Luc (Mychonny), Theodore Saidden and Nathan Saidden (SuperWog1).

These YouTube up-and-comers not only brought a new take on Australian comedy that was raw and refreshing, they also brought their expansive audience with them. Additionally, these producers found themselves in professional production roles, generating and contributing to Australia’s creative industries. This innovative production approach has launched some of their professional careers and shored up the roles of Nick Boshier and Christiaan van Vuuren as pioneering talents of new comedy in the country, as demonstrated through their latest program, Soul Mates.

Recently #7DaysLater was awarded an International Digital Emmy.

With substantial cuts to its budget, it is questionable if innovative programming and services such as #7DaysLater will be a viable option for the ABC to pursue.

The Abbott government’s financial squeeze on the ABC also places immense pressure on its innovation department, responsible for some of the most groundbreaking media projects in the past. The Bluebird AR game dealing with the controversial issue of geoengineering was the first of its kind as a trans-media experience, while the Opera House Project collaboration with the Sydney Opera House is something we are likely to never see again. Without support for these activities within the ABC, the broader Australian innovation sphere will be decreased.

So while many commentators respond with their concerns for the future of ABC programming within the current economic environment, the more significant question to ask is how will Australian innovation fare if one of its leading innovation institutions is forced to limit its experimental capacity? The Australian population should be concerned with the knock-on effect of the public service they stand to lose due to budget cuts to the national broadcaster.