The Middle-Class Rip Off is an episode of the great British satire Yes Minister, where Humphrey Appleby excoriates his minister Jim Hacker, for suggesting that the British government spent too much on the arts to the benefit of a few. In a prophetic exchange Hacker, suggests reorienting funds towards sports and away from the arts.
Sir Humphrey: What would happen to the royal opera house on such a basis, the very summit of our cultural achievement?
Hacker: The royal opera house a very good case in point and what do they do? Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. Germans and Italians! It’s not our culture. Why should we subsidize the culture of the Axis powers?
Far from being the ‘end of civilisation as we know it’, it is an under asked question. Why should governments spend money through their public broadcasters on foreign films and television programs that are clearly popular enough to compete on commercial networks or the expanding digital market?
The national broadcaster exists for good reason and deserves to continue but its present structure and its choices in the type of programming it screens require examination. The ABC will spend $1.1 billion this financial year and at present employs in excess of 4000 staff. The Department of Health employs just 3,500 to oversee the Australian healthcare sector.
By comparison, SBS is more frugal and self-financing with annual expenses for 2014-15 running at $384 million, $98 million of which was self-funded through commercial advertising.
But SBS also exists in an era where its mandate, of providing multicultural programs, has been almost entirely superseded by the digital revolution, where interested viewers can find practically anything online. The legislation governing the ABC states that the broadcaster shall take into account the services already provided by commercial broadcasters, but there is no evidence of the ABC seeking to adapt its structure to present conditions.
Mark Scott sought to expand the ABC into the digital domain, where there is no need for more online news sources. And yet there is evidence that budget savings required of the ABC are being sought from the ABC’s regional radio services, affecting those with already limited access to news media.
Online news media is plentiful with every variety of opinion readily accessible. There is no reason why the ABC should seek to duplicate a service that is already decentralised and free from corporate influence. The ABC justifies its size and expense by giving itself greater responsibilities and ignoring the existence of an effective commercial media industry. But it is hard to acknowledge the fact that private providers can do the ABC’s job when the broadcaster is seeking to maintain four TV channels, a digital presence and radio networks.
PBS in America has a substantially smaller government subsidy with highly regarded content in America’s fiercely competitive media market. The public subsidy for PBS derives from a federal government grant totalling US$445 million, which funds a diverse range of local television and radio providers who also accept private funding. And despite the requirement of the network to solicit private financing it remains America’s most trusted news source.
Heizo Takenaka, the former minister responsible for the national broadcaster of Japan (NHK), proposed in 2006 selling off the large state network. With its projected expenditure for 2016 running at upwards of AUD$8.6 billion, it is one of the most expensive public broadcasters in the democratic world. Takenaka argued that NHK duplicated its own services as well as those of more efficient private networks more than capable of providing the services of the NHK at reduced cost.
Various models exist for the potential privatisation or downsizing of the ABC. The PBS model would entail transforming the ABC into a not-for-profit entity that is funded by a much less substantial government grant supplemented with private donations from viewers and corporate sponsorship (strictly speaking not advertisements).
TVNZ, the public broadcaster of New Zealand, remains in public hands but provides 90 percent of its own funding via commercial advertising generating revenues higher than operating costs this year. Essentially the ABC as it is now but self-financing.
A compromise model would entail dividing the ABC into two separate and fully autonomous organisations. One would be a publically funded broadcaster (i.e. the present ABC on a smaller scale) and the other a fully commercially funded network operating from the former infrastructure of the ABC. The commercial network could be retained by the government as a potential revenue source or could be fully privatised as a publically traded company.
Fears of ‘Americanisation’ are a recurring objection raised by opponents of privatisation. There is a valid concern that in a purely private media market, Australian programming would be crowded out by the networks purchasing cheap foreign content. The ABC Act notably declares its duties include: ‘Broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community.’
This is peculiar seeing as the ABC streams massive amounts of British television and when it comes to children’s programing the ABC shows no hesitation at screening hours of content from North America. Foreign content may be cheap compared to the production costs of locally made television and film, but it is hard to justify the ongoing expense of maintaining four free to air channels, most of which broadcast foreign programs that a commercial provider would provide or that could be easily found on digital platforms.
Reducing the number of ABC channels would cut down on transmission costs ($188 million in 2013) as well as its considerable staff expenses ($529 million in 2015).
Savings from purchases of foreign content, online news and a redundant 24 hour news channel would mean a smaller and economical public broadcaster. This would also free up resources for the production of Australian programming as well as regional radio services that have been cut back on in recent years.
If the foundational principle of the ABC is to provide quality ‘Australian’ television through a state funded monopoly, why is every night on the ABC like clicking on to the BBC? If I was opposed to reduced funding for the ABC because I feared that local Australian television and journalism would be threatened, what am I supposed to think when I see hours of Grand Designs, QI, Midsomer Murders, The Bill and Agatha Christie? The merits of a privatised ABC may just be a more Australian national broadcaster.
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