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As big as television in the 1950s – the ABC lays out plans for the next 20 years

The ABC has acknowledged how fast the media is changing with the launch of ‘ABC 2.0’, a set of initiatives to change the way content is served to audiences.

At its inaugural annual public meeting this morning, the national broadcaster’s senior management described how the organisation would focus on evolving into being “fit for the digital challenges of the next 20 years”.

Milne is comparing the shift to ABC’s decision in 1956 to move into television

Speaking to an audience of more than 400 people at its Sydney HQ with remote events in Rockhampton and Launceston, ABC Chairman Justin Milne coined this initiative as ABC 2.0.

Arguing the shift in focus was as big as the decision to go into television in the 1950s, Milne acknowledged shifting audiences were not new for the ABC and the broadcaster had been adapting but said the company needed to be prepared for the future.

Milne presenting at the ABC’s inaugural annual public meeting

Milne said the “new digital platforms” would be created to understand audiences better and serve content anywhere, anytime. He pointed to modernisation of production processes for ABC News and content partnerships with Australian production companies.

What the ABC is trying to establish, he said, is a “multi platform approach to content” which allows all work to be adjusted and exploited on multiple mediums. But Milne clarified there would not be a lack of investment in TV or radio.

“We see both radio and television extending for many, many years into the future and we will continue to invest in them, love them and improve them. ABC 2.0 is however the major strategic initiative for the ABC. It is akin to us deciding to go into the television business in 1956. Just as then, it will require significant investment and possibly generate some controversy,” Milne said.

“Australia has always been at risk of being culturally swamped by overseas media and I believe that risk has never been greater, so ensuring that the trusted and much loved voice of the ABC can continue to be heard has never been more important.”

A more ‘transparent’ ABC

Early last year, managing director Michelle Guthrie said she would slash between 150 and 200 jobs by June, under a new strategy and transformation program. The broadcaster also axed current affairs programs The Link and Lateline in a programming restructure.

Today’s presentation follows a major restructure of the ABC, which sees the organisation divided into divisions based on content rather than platform. The divisions – news, analysis and investigations, specialist and entertainment, and regional and local, are led by Gaven Morris, David Anderson and Michael Mason respectively.

Aside from promoting ABC 2.0, the meeting also aimed to increase ABC’s transparency and accountability. Guthrie pointed to those new divisions this morning, arguing it was the ABC’s role to be leaders in programming, given others tend to great “generic” and “superficial” programs.

According to figures released today by the ABC, 12.3m watch ABC TV each week, with 4.9m tuning in to news and current affairs, and 4.8m listening to ABC radio.

ABC said it had invested $70m in new programs, services and platforms and returned $254m back to the government.

“There is a crying need for depth, independence and critical analysis,” Guthrie said.

It’s critical the ABC plays to its strengths, Guthrie says

She pointed to the broadcaster’s responsibility to providing news and information to the public, noting investigative news capabilities were a central priority to the broadcaster.

“No media organisation is better positioned to capitalise on the opportunities that lie ahead. We are already digital leaders, we are trusted by Australians, our people are resourceful and open to change and we are known for our distinctive, quality programming and services,” she said.

“Our role as Australia’s public broadcaster is now more important than ever.”

But aside from the major restructure last year, ABC was also caught in the list of concessions to get the Turnbull government’s media bill across the line. When the media reforms bill passed in Senate in September, an amendment by One Nation requested an inquiry into the government broadcaster and a reform of the ABC’s charter. 

At the time of negotiations, One Nation said it had received “assurances” from the government it will ask the ABC to start providing details of the wages and conditions of all staff whose packages amount to more than $200,000.

In November, a letter sent by Milne to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield rejected the proposal, arguing it would give competitors an”unfair advantage”.

Today Louise Higgins, ABC’s chief financial officer, made a point to compare ABC’s funding to that of the BBC, and note the broadcaster’s 2018 savings.

“Each year the ABC receives $1b dollars in public funding. Whilst on face value, this is a lot of money, the fact is our funding has declined by 28% in real terms since the mid 1980’s. In the last five years alone, it has declined by more than $200m dollars. Now I point this out for historic context: we know there are many demands on the public purse,” Higgins explained this morning.

“So, how does this compare to other public service broadcasters overseas? Our per capita funding is 34% lower than the average of other public broadcasters, including the BBC. In fact, we serve a population one-third the size of the UK, but do it with a budget one-eighth that of the BBC.

“We have been able to achieve all of this through transformation programs that have cut bureaucracy and unnecessary expenses. We have continued to significantly shift expenditure from administration and back into content by cutting back on managers and travel, reviewing support services, and lowering transmission and distribution costs.

“By the end of 2018 our savings over the last the five years will have increased to $324m; of which we have handed back 78% to government and put the balance back into content for you, our audiences.

“Today my aim was to provide you with a greater level of reporting and transparency than ever before. This will continue.”

Higgins also told the audience the broadcaster would publish its ‘Investing in Audiences’ strategy, and a document which explains the approach to efficiency, public trust and value of the ABC.

“These new disclosures are a signal of our commitment to remain transparent and accountable, and will be followed by regular updates, including our content plans and performance against charter obligations, so you can track our progress,” she said.

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