Is Aunty’s Strength A Net Gain?

The ABC has turned 75 and still occupies a central place in Australia’s political status quo. But getting to its 100th birthday may be tougher.

The ABC has to come to terms with the dramatic technological changes sweeping across the media landscape, changes that are slowly eroding the rationale for public broadcasting.

Unfortunately, many of Aunty’s recent attempts to shoehorn itself into the internet age have been embarrassingly awkward. The ABC has eagerly jumped at fads rather than focused on its strengths.

It has been convinced by a stream of hyperbolic and ridiculous media reports that the virtual world Second Life is the inevitable future of the internet. Second Life is essentially a glorified chat room with a focus on sex and gambling, but the public broadcaster has gullibly embraced it.

Unsurprisingly, in May the ABC’s Second Life headquarters, ABC Island, was reduced to a bombed, cratered mess by the pranksters who roam the online world.

A recent attempt to duplicate the success of the video-sharing site YouTube was also unsuccessful. The website that accompanied the screening of The Great Global Warming Swindle asked viewers to upload their own videos critiquing or commenting on the documentary. But by the time the forum was shut down, only two people had done so.

Building virtual islands and user-generated video sites are hardly central planks in the ABC’s charter. They are also a pretty questionable use of taxpayers’ money; the world doesn’t lack for YouTube clones or chat rooms. However, the ABC’s website is a relative success and understanding why can provide a template for future online activity.

The discussion forums that accompany many of its radio and television programs are popular and cost effective. The network produces a huge volume of content every day and provides much of it online as podcasts and streaming video, instantly multiplying its value for taxpayers.

Indeed, shifting material online is a far more vital task for the ABC than producing yet another mini-series based on a significant moment for the labour movement. Considering the central role the ABC has played in Australia’s history, digitising as much of its archive as possible would be a more valuable education resource.

A debate rages within the ABC as to whether to charge for access to online content. Being asked to pay for ABC programming twice, the first time through the tax system, is hard to stomach. But, more important, the worst thing for a media company is not for consumers to enjoy its content without paying but to not enjoy it at all. The media landscape is characterised by an abundance of material. In a crowded, highly competitive market, few companies can afford to deliberately exclude their consumers.

This abundance also presents a problem for the ABC. Public broadcasting is premised on scarcity. The limited space on the broadcasting spectrum, so the argument goes, means that commercial broadcasters will not be able to provide high-quality or important programming. Public broadcasting steps in to fill that gap.

But with the widespread availability of the internet, quality journalism has never been more plentiful. Quality opinion and editorial is produced by millions of amateurs and professionals, on and offline. Quality drama is available at the click of a mouse from anywhere in the world.

If anything, media consumers suffer from an overload of information and entertainment. In such an environment, it is hard to justify spending vast sums on public broadcasting. The ABC may need to look towards another programming and funding model if it is survive to meet its next big milestone, in 2032.

A useful model to consider is provided by C-SPAN, the US cable TV network dedicated to 24-hour coverage of congressional debate, campaign trail footage, speeches and book forums. C-SPAN is self-consciously focused on objectivity, even going so far as avoiding political commentary.

One of the most important roles the ABC has is broadcasting parliamentary proceedings, and the C-SPAN model would allow it to continue and expand on this valuable programming.

C-SPAN, however, is a good example of how the free market can provide quality public affairs broadcasting in the absence of government subsidy. The network is a privately run, not-for-profit company. An ABC strictly adhering to the C-SPAN model may not have to rely on tax dollars for financial support. Alternative models, such as accepting advertising or even full privatisation, have been well discussed by critics of the ABC. But probably sooner than it expects, Aunty is going to have to provide an answer to a simple question: what role should public broadcasting have in an age of media abundance?