The ABC is changing channels

Article by Stephen Brook /
The Australian /
February 09, 2019  /
Click here to view original /

Today from your ABC, something completely different.

This morning amid much fanfare, chairman Justin Milne, ­managing director Michelle ­Guthrie and finance chief Louise Higgins will take the stage inside the ABC’s ­Ultimo headquarters in Sydney for an event unprecedented in the national broadcaster’s 85-year ­history.

Welcome to the inaugural ABC annual public meeting, a sort of live ­version of the ABC’s much-missed Backchat viewer feedback program. Events are also being held in Rockhampton and Launceston, and the Sydney event will be streamed on the ABC website and Facebook.

“It’s like an AGM. Instead of shareholders we have invited audience members to ask questions,” one executive says.

The ABC has gone to some trouble. Each member of the public who applied to attend was asked to submit a question, all of which were collated by an independent research company. MC Michael Rowland will invite audience members to put their questions to the top brass in the style of the ABC’s Monday staple Q&A.

The whole thing is the brainchild of Milne, a mate of Malcolm Turnbull, who was once a big cheese at Telstra and Microsoft and gets up even before the radio news early morning reporting shift to go rowing six days a week.

“People can eyeball each other. Hard questions can be asked. ­People have to be accountable,” Milne says in spruiking the event on ABC radio.

Not all ABC executives are supportive, finding ­attempts to sate demands for greater accountability are often met with demands for more accountability.

It is likely the ABC executive and board will have half an eye 300km down the Hume Highway, on Canberra, and on Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, and the man that many regard as the real communications minister, the Prime Minister himself.

The ABC will be hoping the event kicks the year off on the right note.

This year Aunty needs to tiptoe through a range of inquiries that will set the political and legislative agenda, including a rural and regional inquiry and a report about drama and children’s television, which might result in quotas being altered. After a deal with Pauline Hanson to get its media reforms passed, the government will try to force the ABC to reveal the salaries of its highest-earning staff.

Commercial networks are keen to put pressure on the ABC and SBS with a competitive neutrality inquiry, about whether the public broadcasters use their status as taxpayer-funded entities to ­unfairly compete with commercial media. Might the ABC’s new ­education website, a “one-stop ­destination for outstanding ­educational resources for Australian teachers, students and ­parents”, which was launched this week, be a topic for the inquiry?

Some executives worry the inquiry will expand to become an all-encompassing review of the ABC’s status and charter, which is regularly criticised as outdated. Then, in time for the federal budget 2019, comes the big one — the triennial funding package, which will set the ABC’s budget for the next three years.

It was on July 1, 1932, that the grand familiar strains of the ­Majestic Fanfare first rang out across a network of 12 radio ­stations as prime minister Joseph Lyons launched the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

The Majestic Fanfare is still heard today (it’s the ABC radio news theme) but as the ABC pivots to digital under its ambitious change agent, Guthrie, the crashing chords are likely to be heard on a digital radio or via ABC Listen, its smartphone app.

The ABC says is it under reconstruction, but how much has really changed?

Guthrie, who arrived in May 2016 after careers at News Corp and Google, has artfully, via a seemingly never-ending series of staff briefings known as cascade meetings, set out to remake the entire organisation — and it seems nothing, apart from the sacrosanct “golden hour” of the 7pm ABC News and 7.30 (although even 7.30 is next year tasked with pulling up its socks), is immune.

Will Guthrie succeed? In fact, she already has, so much so that she is plotting this year’s next big play, turning the iView digital player into a kind of public service broadcasting Netflix, by taking it global.

The 52-year-old graduate of Sydney’s exclusive Kambala girls school and the University of Sydney law school is so seized by the global iView idea that she blurted out the secret plans at the Screen Forever conference in Melbourne last November. Senior ABC executives rather wished she hadn’t.

“I truly believe this is the ABC’s moment,” Guthrie told those ­assembled. “I want the ABC to be as relevant and valued to my children and their children throughout their lives, not just at a point in time, as it has been for me,” she said in a kind of mission statement, before sketching out her iView plans.

“The intention is not to have a separate international product. The intention is to internationalise all the products that we have,” she said, revealing that the international iView would launch this year, once rights issues had been nutted out. “In the same way that Netflix is global, why aren’t we global?” she asked rhetorically, pointing out the global audience was already there, that traffic to the ABC ­science website was 93 per cent ­overseas.

The global iView will require a login to access it, but the ABC wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say if the streaming service would carry ­advertising or require a subscription. “We will announce our plans in the future,” a spokesman says.

Guthrie, who listens to Triple J in her car in the mornings when doing the school run with her 15-year-old daughter, but then tunes in, as she says, to “Fran” — Fran Kelly’s RN Breakfast — is “brilliant” and as “tough as boots” according to a former colleague. “She is doggedly determined and absolutely unintimidatable, and she’s a ­fighter.

“By any standards she has brought more change to that place than they have seen in 20 years and she has done it in an intelligent way. You don’t see them marching in the streets. And she will get it done,” the executive says, referring to the ambitious planned content restructure, which will ­affect 3000 content-producing staff next year and which blows up the old TV and radio divisions, the infamous silos, replacing them with three content areas of news, regional/local and entertainment/specialist.

Guthrie has already achieved a flatter management structure, cutting 20 per cent of managers and 120 staff in March, freeing up more funding for regions, and instituting a $50 million annual big ideas grant, contestable among staff.

One of the biggest victories was the least written about. All-powerful chief operating officer David Pendleton announced he was quitting at the start of last year.

“He clashed with Michelle from the start,” says an insider. “Moving him on was probably one of the biggest things she did and it was a brave. He had enormous power. He ran the place from top to bottom. He knew where every body was buried.”

But having a chief operating officer who was chief financial officer as well, as Pendleton was, is regarded as bad corporate practice, so Guthrie changed it. It was a stunning statement of intent.

Another highlight was the headland speech at the ABC Friends gala dinner in October, where Guthrie cast off her technocrat image to reveal herself as a passionate defender of ABC values, smacking down One Nation, the government and commercial TV executives in the process.

“Should your children and grandchildren be denied the right to watch Play School and Peppa Pig on an iPad because (Nine Entertainment chief executive) Hugh Marks, (News Corporation Australasia executive chairman) ­Michael Miller and (Network Ten chief executive) Paul Anderson are finding life tough?” Guthrie asked.

Change strategies at the ABC (and articles about them) follow a depressingly familiar trope. A ­reformer (Brian Johns, Jonathan Shier) comes charging in, hires consultants, unveils a grand plan, staff actively or passively rebel, complaints about dumbing down are thrown around like confetti, listeners and viewers ask why The Goon Show is no longer broadcast (an actual reader comment on a column in The Age lamenting the recent radio changes) and eventually the ABC reverts to as you were.

Anyone listening to ABC radio this month will find it a changed beast. Many local radio breakfast and morning programs have been combined, and radio current ­affairs flagships The World Today and PM have been cut 50 per cent each to 30 minutes a day.

This has upset ABC Friends, which is ­worried about the downsizing. So is foreign correspondent and now University of Queensland academic Peter Greste, famously freed after 400 days in an Egyptian prison. “The ABC seems about to gut radio current affairs … just when we have never needed strong, in-depth, considered ­current affairs reporting more,” Greste tweeted.

There are many critics. “Thank you for your support! Great to hear our audience values our product even if ABC management doesn’t” was a tweet from Eleanor Hall, who just happens to be host of The World Today. And six former RN managers, including RN Health Report presenter Norman Swan, slated the changes in a letter to Fairfax, saying the fragmentation on RN meant it would cease to be a network eventually, and the restructure meant the RN network manager had “effectively lost the network budget and the editorial authority vital to the network’s existence”.

They predicted that under the new system, RN would lose out to video and digital. It was inevitable.

And more recently, the ABC has faced bad press: three times Walkley Award winner Ginny Stein was made redundant this week, and digitisation of the ABC audio and video archive was ­botched.

One former staff member tells The Australian: “We have lost some footage. They are supposed to be putting it on the cloud.

“That hasn’t been set up yet. The longer it takes, the more likelihood that it will be gone.”

This month the ABC ramps up its content restructure, where staff are no longer working for either TV or radio but rather work in genre units grouped around topic areas.

“Duration does not equate with quality,” head of spoken content Judith Whelan tells The Australian in a riposte to the complaints about The World Today and PM.

AM is at half an hour. It consistently sets the morning agenda. It is a fantastic program.”

Freeing up of resources means more airtime for local current ­affairs in the drivetime slots.

“It opens up opportunities for reporters to do more local current affairs and have that go to larger audiences through local and ­regional audience networks.”

It is true that reporters sometimes have to lengthen stories to fill the hour. And TheWorld Today ratings are said to crash after the first 30 minutes, while the PM ­audience has declined 20 per cent in five years.

“I’m not among those people who think getting rid of half an hour is necessarily a bad thing,” says five-time Walkley Award winner Monica Attard, head of journalism at Macleay College, who spent 28 years at the ABC. “Half an hour with the same amount of staff frees up people to do really good quality investigative stuff. A lot more journalists are going to have a lot more time to do a lot more journalism.

“Getting rid of silos, if it can be achieved, is a really positive thing,” says Attard, adding they are “totally irrelevant” in a digital world.

“There hasn’t been the massive outcry that many predicted, which must mean that the staff are ­getting behind it. The biggest risk is a meta risk. It’s very hard to make overall judgment about where digital is heading and who is going to be there at the end of the line to constitute an audience.”

It will be in the news division that the changes will be most keenly watched.

“The thing that holds us back are the divisions, and when I use that word they really were divided,” says director of news Gaven Morris. “Years ago, TV and radio were literally like warring ­fiefdoms. Executives from radio and news and TV would go into meetings and fight each other.

“Michelle Guthrie, she cares for none of that. Her whole motivation is: ‘What does the audience see and experience?’ ”

But Morris says executives don’t have all the answers on how the new program-making system, with previously separate TV, radio and online commissioning structures, will work. “This will be one of the big areas to focus on in the next six months.”

Certainly, audiences for TV news and current affairs are declining and ageing. ABC News reaches just 31 per cent of audiences each week via TV, a 2016 internal report leaked to The ­Australian last year revealed.

ABC Newsreached just 17 per cent of Australians each week via radio, but grew audiences via computers and mobile devices, exceeding targets to reach 24 per cent via online last year.

To counter declining audiences, ABC News pushes news ­stories out on to digital platforms including Apple News, Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

This worries some staff, as does the content reorganisation. “I just think that people have no idea about how in practice any of this will work,” says one ABC presenter, who requested anonymity.

“They haven’t told us how our programs will change. They say ‘you will be liaising more and co-ordinating more and working across other platforms’ — nobody knows what this means. We ­are ­already working online.

“There’s a profound sense they don’t have a realistic idea about ­replenishing the audience. Everyone seems focused on a demographic that aren’t going to consume us anyway, people in their 20s and 30s. We should be aiming for people in their 40s. There’s a sense that Guthrie is pushing this real gimmickry.”

Certainly, it will be interesting to see what listeners of ideas network Radio National make of The Hub, a new culture offering that replaces the Books and Arts program. Friday’s edition will be Stop Everything!, in which Benjamin Law, Beverley Wang and Lauren Rosewarne will present a “savvy, critical take on popular culture”.

The Goon Show it ain’t. But in attracting a newer, younger audience, the ABC risks alienating its loyal fans.

Early in her tenure, Guthrie announced a goal, rarely revisited since, to reach 100 per cent of Australians. Currently the ABC reaches about 70 per cent each week.

Morris has refined the concept for his boss. “The way I look at it, if there are 30 per cent of people we don’t reach, if there are 30 per cent of taxpayers paying tax and we are not useful to them, then that is something we have to reach.”