Opinion

ABC Life’s ‘rebrand’ is a loss; it published pieces that would never find homes with its commercial critics

The public broadcaster's lifestyle platform was one of the biggest casualties of this week's Five-Year Plan, which involves up to 250 redundancies. But Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby argues that ABC Life's axing is a reminder of the flimsy criticism commercial outlets levelled at it, even before it launched.

ABC Life was axed this week. The decision was euphemistically described as a ‘rebrand’ to ABC Local, but the two products are very different; ABC Local will focus on suburban and regional news and, in effect, the public broadcaster will no longer have a dedicated lifestyle offering. 

This was one of the worst cuts handed down in the ABC’s long-awaited Five-Year Plan. Managing director David Anderson and the board had a difficult job: meeting an $84m budget shortfall, and deciding which people – up to 250 of them – would lose their jobs.

But disbanding a team that punched above its weight and published meaningful content is short-sighted. And its absence will be felt keenly by a young audience that has already lost digital titles like Buzzfeed News, 10 Daily, Whimn, and basically Vice (which is left with one writer and one editor).

News Corp led a dogged (and, I suppose, successful) campaign against ABC Life, backed by fellow commercial outlets apparently threatened by a team that didn’t compete for ad revenue. The Australian was particularly vocal about its distaste for the two-year-old site, which has been led by editor Bhakthi Puvanenthiran since last August.

“Without ABC Life – who would have known how to cook chickpeas in rich tomato sauce? Worth $3 million on its own, to be sure,” Gerard Henderson wrote.

There was a lot of emphasis on its budget of $3m a year, despite this being just 0.34% of the ABC’s total 2019/2020 budget of $879m. Anonymous columnist “The Mocker” dismissed nuanced stories on the emotional labour involved in occupations like hairdressing, and the class and racial history of nail art – “Commenting on nails is racist now?” – among others.

“If someone could point to that part of the ABC statutory charter that says the organisation must incessantly self-flagellate and berate concerning matters relating to race, climate and gender, I would appreciate it,” The Mocker wrote.

“Basically if your writing is along the lines of giving voice to the so-called marginalised, or if you believe anything that white people say or do is racist, or if you are convinced there is a patriarchy hellbent on subordinating women, ABC Life is your outlet.”

And then, unsurprisingly, there was Chris Kenny, who added: “Apparently, Life tells us, only one in every four women is masturbating regularly, and our national broadcaster has hang-ups about that. ‘Blame the patriarchy … and religion’, it wanks on.”

It’s predictable and boring to scoff at stories written for young people on sex, food, travel, money, work and relationships. And why is lifestyle content – often written by women for women, like the above-mentioned story about the gendered masturbation gap – so often belittled?

But The Australian wasn’t alone. The criticism was loud and clear (and commercial), even before ABC Life launched.

Fairfax (before its merger with Nine) said it was “not needed”, Junkee said the lifestyle space is “well serviced by the existing commercial publishers”, and News Media Works’ Peter Miller said the offering could “suck the oxygen” from other players. The commercial TV networks, represented by Free TV’s Bridget Fair, agreed. Fair said at the time: “Lifestyle would have to be one of the most comprehensively covered market segments in Australian media. It’s very hard to see how this new service fits with the ABC charter.”

And the charter argument is flimsy anyway. The charter is broad and mandates, among other things, “broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community”. 

Scott Spark, who helped create ABC Life, told Mumbrella last year: “When it comes to the charter and how it really speaks to Life, there are some key things there that I would draw on. One of them is around reflecting Australia’s cultural diversity, innovating our content and providing independent media services.”

As for the lifestyle space already being “well serviced” by commercial outfits, part of ABC Life’s appeal, and success, is content unlike anything consumers would find housed elsewhere: talking to kids about racism, living with chronic pain, salary transparency, and what not to say to someone dealing with infertility. ABC Life has also published pieces that deal sensitively with recovering from mental illness, giving up alcohol, coping with unemployment, and navigating a relationship in which a partner experiences pain during sex – all without trying to sell anything.

Spark was with ABC Life since its inception, before stepping into a new role at the ABC in April
Image: Juliet Steen

And its COVID-19 coverage has been something different to, but just as important as, Aunty’s hard news reporting: Your legal rights if your employer cuts your hours under Job Keeper, helping older people feeling lonely in isolation, the impact lockdown has had on people with eating disorders, and how a homeless person can’t heed a ‘stay at home’ direction when they don’t have one.

All of these stories deserve to be told by the public broadcaster, because they reflect the diversity of the Australian community, inform, entertain, and contribute to a more accurate sense of our national identity. Just like the charter says.

Chair Ita Buttrose said on Wednesday: “The ABC Five-Year Plan is a robust blueprint for the future of the ABC that emphasises the important role the ABC plays in the Australian way of life.”

That’s the exact role the aptly-named ABC Life played. And its team deserved a longer and easier run than it got, no thanks to the competitors whose revenue woes will persist, even now they’ve gotten their way.

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