Expansion is appropriate and appreciated: ABC

ABCIn part four of our series on the future of Australian television, we had a conversation with the managing director of ABC TV, Kim Dalton.

The public broadcaster has been criticised – particularly by the pay-TV sector – for its digital expansion, but according to Dalton, the Australian public supports the ABC’s plans, which are only limited by its budget.

Encore: What are ABC TV’s strategies going forward into the new digital environment?

Kim Dalton: As a general principle we’re interested in having our programming and programs available on new and emerging platforms as appropriate and possible, given the technological constraints.

We’ve got iView on the PlayStation platform, and we’re very interested in making it available through the Freeview platform. We’re talking to a number of manufacturers of television sets to make iView available directly through those devices, and we’re in discussions with Fetch to provide it through that platform.

We’re increasingly pushing into the mobile platform and already quite a lot of our content is available on mobile, particularly the iPhone, and we’re working on having it available via the iPad.

You mentioned in a previous interview with Encore that you were aiming for 50 percent local content for ABC3 by the end of this year. How is that objective going?

We’re just over 40 percent. I won’t give you a precise figure, but we’re still on target to reach the 50 percent mark.

How will your upcoming 24-hour news channel affect creation of content for your other multi-channels?

The news channel won’t have any impact on ABC2- we don’t carry any news content on that. ABC3 has a daily news service which is produced by the news division, and that will simply continue. And certainly, all our flagship news programs on ABC1 will continue in their present form, but at the same time we’ll be offering a range of new content on the new news channels and it’ll be complimentary to what we’re offering on ABC1.

What about in terms of the re-distributing your funds across all your channels?

ABC3 was given additional funding to launch, so that was a discrete bucket of funding that came from the government as part of our tri-annual funding.

In terms of ABC2, we’ve never received any additional funding; it’s been funded from within the TV budget so it’s just been a matter of making our acquisition budget work harder across two channels.

Unfortunately, what’s suffered in that regard is the fact that there are minimal levels of new Australian content. We’ve got Good Game– an important program on ABC2 – and ABC2 Live which is a series of live arts events. But given that ABC1 provides 55 percent Australian content in prime time, the level new Aussie content on ABC2 is barely measurable and that’s just a factor of cost.

ABC4 will of course be close on 100 percent Australian content-during prime time viewing, and that will be news content originated by our news department. And we’ll be funding ABC news from existing funds within the corporation.

What are the main challenges in producing more local content for your multi-channels?

It can be reduced to a single word and that’s money. Australian content is a lot more expensive to produce than buying what is relatively cheap content from overseas, particularly when you’re talking about multi-channels. We can buy children’s content for ABC3 for $5-10,000 an hour, but making a half-hour episode of an Australian children’s drama takes a budget of between $300-400,000. So the cost difference is just absolutely enormous and even if you look at weekly turn-around shows, much lower budget shows, nonetheless you’re still looking at Australian content costing more by a factor of 5-10 times or even 20 times more sometimes. It’s just a lot more expensive.

On ABC3, thanks to the government’s commitment we’re able to allocate a significant amount of new money to new Australian content. With ABC2, without winding back levels of Australian content on ABC1, it’s not possible to fund new significant amounts of new content for ABC2.

What are your aims for ABC2 in terms of local content production?

The question is ,what’s going to happen to Australian content in this multi-channel universe? It’ll be a shame if we don’t, as a country, come up with a solution which allows the ABC and all networks to in fact have some level of Australian content on the multi-channels. Otherwise, what Australians are being provided with is an additional 5-10 digital channels, yet no increase in their local programming , and that’s a problem for audiences and for our local industry.

Having said that, the funding of that local content is an issue. The ABC doesn’t have the money to fund it. The networks of course have their own issues at the moment, with their business models and advertising and all the problems associated with falling audiences, etc.

It’s a matter of looking at what are the mechanisms to ensure that we do have some new and additional Australian content being made available on the ABC’s multi-channels and the other broadcasters’ as well.

Would the solution be to apply content quotas for the digital channels?

The ABC doesn’t have to meet content quotas; we sit outside that regulatory regime that applies to the networks. For the ABC it is purely is a matter of funding.

An increase in funding through the tax base and through the government funding bodies and the producer offset would allow the ABC to commit to higher levels of Australian content.

The Pay TV sector says that the ABC is spreading itself too thin. Foxtel chief Kim Williams is on the record saying that the ABC’s programming is turning into ‘watery gruel’. How do you respond to this?

ABC3 was a federal Australian government initiative. It’s been a very successful initiative; we’ve been funded to provide a dedicated digital children’s channel, we’ve been funded to move towards 50 percent Australian content, and that provides a service which is accessible and available to all Australians for free on the FTA platform.

It’s not an issue about spreading our resources too thin in that regard, and its very important- for Australian culture and children.

In terms of ABC4, the ABC has the largest news gathering organisation in the country, spread right across metropolitan areas and, more importantly, regional Australia as well as a number of bureaus internationally. Through that news gathering organisation we have a lot of content, and the idea of making that content more available and more accessible once again to all Australians on the digital platform is an idea that is timely, and one that will be received very well by our audiences.

Has this discussion and media coverage on ABC’s expansion been productive in any way?

We’ve been very open and transparent about what our objectives are. We’re publicly funded; we are the primary public broadcaster in Australia.

As the media changes and technology offers audiences an opportunity to get a broader range of content via the FTA platforms, as well as via a whole lot of other platforms and devices, it’s absolutely appropriate for the national broadcaster to be providing a more diverse and broader service. That’s what we’re doing, and by the time the news channel launches in the middle of the year we will have the most comprehensive multichannel FTA offering of any Australian broadcaster; that’s appropriate as the public broadcaster.

Those efforts have been appreciated. You only have to look at the audience results for ABC3; clearly there was a need for a channel that was free- able to be received by all Australian households and which has a very real focus on Australian culture and Australian content.

And has the ABC identified that same need for a new channel?

We know there is a need for Australian news and the ABC is seen as an absolutely critical and primary provider of news about Australia and about the rest of the world. We know that our news services are incredibly important across the TV platform as well as the radio and online platform, and in this day and age, when you are moving into an environment of a 24-hour news cycle and people want to access news on a regular basis throughout the day and evening, then it’s entirely appropriate that the public broadcaster delivers a service.

I have no doubt there will be a significant number of Australians who traditionally have always looked to the ABC as a key provider of news, who will turn to our news channel.

What should all broadcasters aim to do with the opportunity provided by the multi-channels, regardless of commercial or business objectives?

It’s very difficult with the media to set aside the business commercial context that you’re operating, because whilst certainly FTA is delivered free, the content itself is expensive and particularly Australian content is expensive.

I don’t think you can have a conversation about the opportunity that DTV offers in terms of expanded services, not outside of a conversation about how those services are going to be funded.

In the case of the national broadcaster, they have to be funded by the government; in the case of commercial broadcasters, it’s imperative that the context in which those services are delivered is such that a reasonable amount of Australian programming can be made available to audiences.

At the moment that happens in part through regulation ,but also in part through restricting the number of licenses, mechanisms such as the anti siphoning regulations, the taxation benefits that are applied to certain types of Australian content, and the direct subsidy that is provided to Australian content.

You can argue about any of those particular individual mechanisms; you can say there should be more players or there should be more sport available to subscription, or there should be higher or lower direct subsidy or taxation benefits. That’s an argument that you can have about any one of those mechanisms, then you can argue for more money or less money to the national broadcaster.

But all I would say is that you have to make a decision as a nation about what it is you want from your broadcasting system, and I would have thought that some level of Australian content across all forms and genres including news, drama and children’s programming, that that is an absolutely fundamental requirement.

Having made a decision about that, then you have to actually build and construct the architecture of the system such that- whether it’s a nation or commercial broadcaster, whether its subscription or FTA broadcaster- that the conditions exist such that you can actually run a business and spend the required amount of money on local content.

-by Micah Chua

Tomorrow, in the fifth and final part of this series, SPAA executive Geoff Brown will present the producers’ point of view on local content, multi-channels and the license fee rebate.


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