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The ABC and SBS are vital but can be strengthened

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Our public broadcasters could benefit from the rising popularity of online streaming (Image by Dan Jensen)

Australia’s public broadcasters would be strengthened by combining resources and prioritising streaming, writes Adrian McMahon.

THE ABC AND SBS, Australia’s public broadcasters, serve a vital function. Guided by charters and with funding models not wholly reliant on high ratings and advertising revenue, they provide something that cannot be guaranteed by the commercial broadcasters — programming that reflects and is made by Australia’s many, diverse communities.

Their funding models allow for innovation and risk-taking, which is vital in a creative industry. As a result, the ABC and SBS have produced some of the best Australian television programs. Shows that would never have been created by the commercial networks, such as Frontline, Mother and Son, SeaChange, Gruen, The Movie Show, Recovery, The World Game, Race Around the World and Go Back to Where You Came From.

In relation to news and current affairs, the ABC and SBS provide independent, fair and balanced reporting, analysis and investigative journalism. Local coverage during emergency events such as bushfires saves lives and foreign news and foreign language bulletins connect Australians to the world.

However, there are two key ways to strengthen the public broadcasters: combining resources and prioritising streaming.

Combining off- and on-air resources and avoiding duplication

Combining ABC and SBS resources and avoiding duplication across the two organisations would strengthen the efficiency of Australia’s public broadcasters. In 2016, then outgoing ABC Managing Director Mark Scott claimed a merger between the ABC and SBS could save $40 million a year.

Such a deal should be made with two provisos. First, that the money saved is reinvested in content.

Second, that the ABC and SBS maintain their distinct identities — with separate charters and brands. As such, SBS would maintain its multicultural focus in a manner similar to the way ABC icons Radio National and Triple J are distinctive entities within the same organisation.

Off-air, savings can be made combining boards, buildings, studios, technology and corporate departments.

On-air, duplication is most obvious in news, including the two news websites. For example, on 30 June 2020, the nightly television bulletins on ABC TV (7 PM ABC News Victorian bulletin) and SBS (6:30 PM SBS World News) each aired five stories that were also covered on the competing channel. This meant ten publicly-funded journalists reported on only five stories. Presumably, this wasteful duplication is a common occurrence, meaning each day many other important stories are neglected.

Prioritise streaming...

Another duplication is the public broadcasters’ video on demand, online streaming services: ABC iview and SBS On Demand. Streaming is the future of television and is already the main viewing habit for many Australians, particularly younger viewers. It would reduce costs and be smart branding to make all public broadcasting content available in one, bigger streaming service.

In acknowledgement of the changing landscape, the service should lead the ABC and SBS brands. As business executive and television presenter Todd Sampson recently said, the ABC needs to reverse its current model so that “iview is the business and TV is supplementary”.

A recent Roy Morgan survey found that in May 2020, approximately two-thirds of Australians aged 14 and over (64 per cent, 13.3 million people) were subscribed to Netflix — the streaming market leader. It also found there have been significant subscription increases for each of the major streaming services (Netflix, Foxtel Now, Stan, Disney + and Amazon Prime Video) since the COVID-19 pandemic began, which followed steady increases in the prior months and years.

A single public broadcaster streaming service would require funding to strengthen its technology, as iview and On Demand each lack the smooth functionality of services like Netflix. Yet, subsequently, the streaming service would have two advantages over the plethora of commercial platforms.

First, it would be free – like iview and On Demand are now – and consistent with every ABC and SBS platform. This is an enormous advantage in an increasingly crowded market.

However, the streaming service could generate revenue by also offering a paid subscription. In contrast with a free subscription providing individual episodes that expire after a number of weeks, a paid subscription could offer entire seasons for longer time periods. This would attract Australians who are able to pay for a greater viewing privilege.

The second advantage is that the ABC and SBS produce radio programs and podcasts, as well as live television and radio, that can be included on the streaming service. This type of content is not offered by other streaming services, which tend to only include television programs and films.

...but do not leave behind the traditional broadcast audience

While streaming should be prioritised, the traditional broadcast audience cannot be left behind. A significant segment of the population does not use streaming — largely due to a lack of technological know-how and/or not owning a smart TV with internet connectivity and built-in apps. This audience must continue to have access to vital ABC and SBS services through broadcast television and radio.

However, there is scope to streamline the volume of content offered via traditional broadcasting, particularly on television. Removing some television channels would reduce the costs of transmission and program scheduling and delivery. This would enable a better focus on the online streaming service, where it is far cheaper to place programs for viewers to access on demand.

Instead of the current nine ABC and SBS broadcast television channels, there is likely only need for six. Separate channels for pre-school-aged children (ABC Kids) and school-aged children (ABC ME) that are free of advertising are a worthwhile service. An Indigenous channel (NITV) is also a good initiative.

Arguably, there should continue to be a news channel, but the current incarnation (ABC News) needs better content, particularly in prime time. It broadcasts rolling national news bulletins from 6 PM to 9 PM, followed by a repeat of The Drum from 9 PM to 10 PM — a fairly uninspiring prime time lineup.

The renowned ABC TV Monday night lineup of Four Corners, Media Watch and Q&A should air exclusively on ABC News. Other nights of the week should include current affairs such as Insight, Foreign Correspondent/Dateline (another duplication), Catalyst and Planet America.

The remaining vital content (foreign news and foreign language bulletins, entertainment, documentary and lifestyle programming) should be covered on separate ABC TV and SBS channels and the half channel after ABC Kids ends at 7:30 PM.

This would mean the ABC TV and SBS channels would effectively function as they do now — minus the content that shifts to ABC News and integrating worthwhile content from SBS Viceland, SBS Food and SBS World Movies. These three SBS channels can then be removed, as they largely contain non-essential content that can be available on the streaming service.

Adrian McMahon is a former Federal and State Government public servant, working as a policy adviser and an analyst.

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