Will the new ABC Arts Council win back the arts community?

After many cuts to arts programming, the ABC has announced new specialised arts programming and a new Arts Council. AAP Image/ Tracey Nearmy

Due to Australia’s small population and high concentration of few media voices, public broadcasters play a pivotal role in shaping the media ecosystem and cultural landscape. With the ABC and SBS under scrutiny ahead of the budget, The Future of Public Broadcasting series looks at the role of these taxpayer funded broadcasters, how they shape our media and whether they provide value for money.

The ABC’s major arts announcement this month appears at first glance to be good news for one of its core constituencies. The national broadcaster will establish an Arts Council and will roll out several new arts programming initiatives.

The Corporation’s relationship with the arts community has been strained in recent years, so the new programming initiatives should be greeted positively. But without significant new funding, coupled with the uncertainties of a looming federal budget, some commentators are seeing this as little more than a shuffling of the deckchairs.

The announcement is a smart move by the ABC’s Head of Arts, Katrina Sedgwick, just weeks before the federal budget is brought down. The initiatives build on the ABC’s strategic partnership with the Australia Council, which is designed to deliver more digital arts content. And they extend Sedgwick’s sterling efforts to establish innovative partnerships between arts organisations and institutions during her time as the director of the Adelaide Film Festival.

The Prime Minister’s pre-election promise to maintain ABC funding may not survive the razor gang’s sharp attention. If not quite a pre-emptive strike, the ABC’s announcement could well be a case of getting the good news in first. It should also help to sure up support for the public broadcaster ahead of some challenging years to come.

The main focus of last week’s announcement was the establishment of a specialised Arts Council, which will encourage an holistic approach to arts programming across the Corporation’s multiple channels, networks and sites. Interestingly, the BBC has recently taken a similar turn.

Among the new programs flagged last week are some intriguing prospects. ABC TV Arts is working with Opera Australia and the producers of Ja’mie Private School Girl, Princess Pictures, on a “unique soap opera exclusively for television”. Mozart in the Jungle – with added Mr G, perhaps?

And there will be a new weekly arts and entertainment program on ABC News 24. Ironically, it was the cost of originally establishing the news service that some blame for earlier cuts to the ABC’s arts offerings.

The Arts Council and programming announcements go some way to fulfilling a 2011 Senate Select Committee’s recommendation that the Corporation publish an Arts Strategy. The recommendation came at the end of an inquiry into “Recent ABC Programming Decisions” that had been prompted in part by earlier cuts and changes to the Corporation’s arts offerings.

Many of the 335 submissions to the inquiry had been highly critical of the ABC’s decisions in this area. Committee members shared these concerns. The final report returned to this issue repeatedly, and reminded the Corporation of its Charter responsibilities “to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts by programming decisions” and to “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”.

The ABC’s move also represents a major effort to place the ABC’s relationship with the arts community on a positive new footing after a difficult few years:

  • September 2012: Radio National cut 11 staff and seven programs.

  • September 2011: Radio National’s Sunday morning program Artworks is cancelled. Almost 60 prominent arts and cultural figures sign an open letter to the ABC board requesting an end to the “destruction of ABC TV Arts”. Signatories included philanthropist Simon Mordant, now an ABC Director, who launched the event at which the Arts Council announcement was made last week.

  • August 2011: the flagship television program Arts Nation was axed, just a year after it had replaced Sunday Arts. Ten staff were made redundant.

  • January 2007: the ABC divests itself of the six state-based symphony orchestras, ending a tradition that began in the 1930s.

  • April 2004: a report by Professor Liz Jacka of UTS, commissioned by the Community and Public Sector Union, reveals a dramatic fall over the previous four years in ABC arts coverage, and calls for a review of the ABC’s entire arts output.

  • June 2001: Arts staff walk off the job following the sacking of Head of Radio Arts Roz Cheney. ABC management announces a new Arts Advisory Group, headed by former Australia Council chair Margaret Seares.

  • May 1997: A group of arts radio executive producers sign an open letter protesting the new “One ABC” policy’s impact on the Corporation’s arts activities.

  • October 1996: in response to the Howard government’s efficiency drive, Radio National loses four arts programs including Arts National, the predecessor of Artworks, and drama program The Box Seat.

While it remains to be seen how the ABC will be treated in the federal budget next month, the Corporation must be praised for taking the initiative and actively promoting arts coverage in a time of great uncertainty for public broadcasters around the world.

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