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Public broadcasters play a major cultural role, beyond the market

The public broadcasters inform audiences and shape culture – whether in drama, news, or documentary form. ABC Publicity

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 is always at the top of the list when governments want to cut costs. And although there is a whiff of inevitability about the Abbott government’s targeting of the ABC, it is not only conservative governments who like to have the ABC anxious about its future funding.

But to a cash-strapped government that never liked them anyway, and as alternate media choices proliferate, the ABC looks like a luxury.

At times like this, the defenders of the ABC present the standard claims for the broadcaster’s centrality to our national identity. Typically, they cite its pioneering role in the development of Australian drama or its reliability and independence as a news service.

For their part, the ABC’s detractors say these roles are now adequately performed by the commercial networks. In television, although not in radio, there is some justification for that view: taken together, the commercial television networks produce as much quality drama as the ABC, and there is probably as much political current affairs coverage on Sky as there is on ABC 24.

There is, of course, great popular affection for the ABC and it is the only truly national service, reaching communities that would be unprofitable for a commercial network. But, is it really necessary?

It is worth noting that there is nothing unique about the situation in which the ABC and SBS find themselves today. National public broadcasters all over the world have bitten the dust as media systems globalise, rationalise and commercialise. As media choices multiply, competition has accelerated and new platforms of delivery – mobiles, laptops, tablets, smart TVs – are changing the patterns of consumption advertisers used to understand.

Entertainment rules

The surviving public broadcasters have had to accept that competition in the commercial marketplace now overwhelmingly determines what we see on television. Consequently, what we see, more comprehensively than ever before, is entertainment.

Even in Australia, where the free-to-air networks don’t face the degree of competition experienced in the US, for instance, entertainment rules.

Serious coverage of politics outside standard news bulletins has virtually disappeared from commercial television, as the remaining current affairs programs compete for the bottom end of a fickle market. Documentary production has mutated into a range of “reality-based” formats dominated by the lifestyle-themed game-show reality formats such as MasterChef and The Block.

What remains distinctive about the ABC and the SBS is that their programming is not solely about producing entertainment that will deliver market share (although that is not irrelevant), but it is also about informing the nation and serving the public good.

They do this most directly through, among other things, investigative news and current affairs such as Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent, and Dateline; through consumer watchdog programs such as MediaWatch, The Checkout and The Gruen Transfer; and through interactive public issues programs such as Q&A and Insight. SBS, even more so than the ABC, has produced programs such as Go Back To Where You Came From, that explicitly challenge the standard lines of public debate on major issues.

None of these programs, with the exception of Gruen, would be financially viable for a commercial network.

Market failures for public good

This might sound like a simple critique of mainstream taste preferences – or, worse, an elitist harrumph that TV should be “improving” for the masses. But that is not the point. Rather, the point is to recognise that the commercial market in media content will not necessarily deliver everything the nation needs without some mechanism to address market failure.

Public broadcasters are just such a mechanism. Markets have proven to be an imperfect means of distributing opportunity; they are even worse at distributing information. Democracy depends on freely available and accessible information; and access should not be dependent upon the citizen’s capacity to pay.

Our public broadcasters address a national public – not just a market, or a targeted demographic, or a network. Through its inclusion of the broad range of interests required for a legitimate conversation with this public, it helps to normalise the encounter with different points of view upon which a functional liberal society depends. This does not only happen through information programming; it also happens through drama and entertainment (think Redfern Now).

At its best, the ABC can play a major cultural role in helping the Australian public better understand social, political and cultural complexity. It may do this with varying focus, intensity and success, and it may do it in varying ways (from 7.30 to Gardening Australia) but no other component of Australia’s media environment is charged with that task.

Read more articles in The Future of Public Broadcasting.

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