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Memo to Michelle Guthrie: expert ideas for the new ABC era

Michelle Guthrie. AAP Image/ABC

The ABC’s new managing director, Michelle Guthrie, has been in the job for a week. She has already made it her mission to increase diversity at the broadcaster and Helen Vatsikopoulos offers some suggestions how to here. We asked a group of experts to consider what needs to be done in other areas: from news and current affairs coverage to local content to digital services.

News and current affairs

Peter Manning, former Head of TV News and Current Affairs at the ABC, now Adjunct Professor of Journalism at UTS

New managing director Michelle Guthrie has just had her first lesson in dealing with her political masters in Canberra.

According to the gossip trail, she was Malcolm Turnbull’s preferred candidate for MD following the end of Mark Scott’s 10-year reign. If so, it hasn’t helped her in the Budget handed down last week. Scott had made a special plea in his farewell speech for one of his victories – a A$20 million a year grant called the “Enhanced Newsgathering Program” for the 2013-2016 triennium. Despite Guthrie’s clean-slate relationship with the media savvy Turnbull, the requested A$20 million has been cut by a third, to A$13.5 million annually.

ABC staff and viewers will be watching closely all the nuances of that relationship. Guthrie’s failure to hold the line on ABC funding will not go down well. More directly, the ABC issued a statement quickly noting: “There will necessarily be some changes to staffing and programming in line with the reduced allocation of funds.” Jobs will go.

Which jobs? It’s likely two of the five initiatives in the three year program – outer suburban bureaus (in Sydney and Melbourne) and live-linking capacity in the major regions – are safe. But the other three – a national reporting team, state based digital news and the ABC Fact Check Unit – are under threat.

The ABC has always regarded its relations with the bush as central to its charter and the outer suburban bureaus are extremely cost effective. They have only a few reporters but cover very well the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne – where most people live.

For what’s its worth, Guthrie has an unenviable job – trying to put her stamp on an empire whose core business is news and current affairs – with programs that are performing well in the ratings but stretched to the limit in terms of resources.

In that situation, better to sit back and smell the roses for a while and get to know the values of the place and how it works.

Under Scott, news and current affairs became more accessible, better distributed (to a variety of platforms) and more heavily regulated to ensure fairness and balance.

The ABC also became more news oriented and current affairs slipped down the corporate beanpole. Like so many other cultural institutions, it became more defensive and a victim of outrageous attacks from right-wing cultural warriors such as Gerard Henderson and Andrew Bolt.

In this environment, the ABC’s news coverage became more “literal”, specialising in what we used to call “police rounds”: crime, fires, car accidents and courts. It would be good to see a more confident, serious ABC News that reported more socially significant policy rounds, such as economics, environment, industrial relations, transport and the arts.

The ABC’s foreign correspondents also mark it out as different in the marketplace. No-one competes with them in Australia. News should therefore be roughly one third local, one third national and one third global.

Finally, the abolition of the state-based editions of the 7.30 Report was a major error. We are a federal nation. It means state premiers and ministers get it easy. Quentin Dempster was a major loss in NSW and with him went a corporate memory as well. I am sure Mike Baird is pleased to see the back of him. As a viewer, I’m certainly not.

Digital strategy

Jonathon Hutchinson, lecturer in Online Media at the University of Sydney

Often when people discuss the ABC’s digital strategy, particularly under the leadership of Michelle Guthrie, it is framed with a negative connotation as either a click bait exercise, or a waste of money. But when talking about digital strategy, one should consider the ABC’s obligation, under its charter, to provide material to all Australians – wherever they live.

As the ABC embraces its “digital first” content production model, it is offering digital ahead of, or in conjunction with, its broadcast TV and Radio content. Examples include the Television Division’s iView platform and the development of an entire audio podcasting unit within the Radio Division.

Digital first enables the ABC to commission influential digital content producers, for example leading YouTube celebrity producers, to co-create innovative ABC content. It also means content can be as long or short as it needs – not tied to restrictive programming time slots. It is attractive for many reasons, not least its cost effectiveness within a hostile funding environment.

However, to capitalise on the ABC’s innovation within this space, the organisation must ensure its focus remains on access to the content, beyond providing free radio and iView apps.

Digital first content has to be consumed on digital platforms, which require access to the internet and a significant amount of data. While data charges have significantly dropped in recent years for Australian internet customers, the demand of video streaming services is an enormous strain on an already struggling infrastructure. As Rebecca Heap notes, iView alone is consistently reaching video streaming levels of 50 million views per month, before we add commercial services such Netflix, Stan and similar to that same internet infrastructure.

Data that is pushed through copper pipes may not necessarily be able to handle an entire neighborhood’s demand, rendering our NBN infrastructure incompatible for future digital consumption habits.

Furthermore, this type of activity is entirely unreachable for many Australians who would otherwise access ABC content via mobile devices, which still attract incredibly expensive monthly data charges.

So while the ABC is leading the way with its digital first strategy, it must maintain its focus simultaneously on providing or subsidising digital infrastructure that can be universally accessed by Australian citizens.

Guthrie, in taking over from Scott, must maintain a strong role in the overall Australian communication landscape. This especially includes lobbying the government for a better NBN infrastructure: a position I’m certain she is well equipped for, given her previous role at Google.

This further emphasises the importance of Guthrie’s role as a key “push-back” agent against an often dismissive government when it comes to the values of public service media. She is the voice of a diverse cultural institution, beloved by many as our Aunty.

Local content

Vincent O'Donnell, Honorary Research Associate of the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

Dresses all lit up at the Adelaide Fringe Festival…the ABC needs to look outside Sydney and Melbourne for content. Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Local content on Australian television, even the ABC, is an endangered species. On commercial television it will soon be as elusive as the Night Parrot, despite the wholesome and hopeless promises of the government’s media reform legislation.

This, in part, is the outcome of lazy regional commercial station managers who turn to deregulation rather than innovation to save the sinking share price of their companies. They fail to exploit their one competitive advantage over all other electronic media, that of localism.

Ignoring, too, all free-to-air media’s public service obligation, they pass the buck to the ABC, redefining its broadcast role as compensating for their local content deficit, especially in news.

But the ABC is not blame free. It has retreated from content production in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. It may have made sense to the ABC bean counters to concentrate content production in Melbourne and, especially, Sydney, but it flies in the face of the ABC mandate to reflect Australia to Australians. All Australia.

The thinking may be “Sydney and the bush”, but Sydney is not Australia, and neither is Melbourne. The avenues to redress the deficiency in program diversity are within easy reach for both commercial and public sector broadcasters as long as every state doesn’t want to be the home of the next blockbuster series.

For both, there is a model in ABC Radio that all television could follow.

Though largely produced from studios in Sydney and Melbourne, Radio National achieves a significant catchment of content from across all Australia (although Darwin and far North Queensland remain poorly represented).

Programs like Books and Arts and The Live Set pursue content from festivals across Australia. There is a wealth of light entertainment content and serious drama happening every night in all our capital cities and many provincial towns, much of it of high production quality and potentially good for TV.

The content is culturally vital, accessible and needs just a small outside broadcast van for the night. Adelaide, every autumn, is host to the world’s third largest fringe festival, behind only Edinburgh, Scotland, and Edmonton, Canada. Is someone saying there is nothing there that is worth packaging for TV?

Not only is the content there but the productions are opportunities for the next generation of screen directors. Ric Birch, veteran of half a dozen Olympic opening telecasts, started on ABC’s low-budget GTK. Where will the next Ric Birch come from?

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