The ABC-Out of sight, out of care

This continues yesterday’s feature on ABC Australia, our underfunded and neglected TV presentation to the Asia Pacific. Look on, ye neighbours, and despair.

Turning off life support for Australia’s overseas TV service in 2013 may have satisfied the Coalition’s political ideology but a legal reality prevented burial: The ABC Charter says it must run an international service.

The result was Australia Plus with a $20 million budget for three years propped up by sponsors. The public service – commercial telecaster marriage was a disaster.

The ads from Monash University, the Victorian Government and food supplement manufacturer Swisse Wellness were repetitious, discursive and often plain weird. Indonesian commercials tend to be as unsubtle as a runaway road train.

With 2018 came another change to the present tautology: ABC Australia and its banal slogan Yours. At the time the Head of ABC International David Hua said ‘rebranding makes sense to our audiences overseas, who want distinctive Australian content from a highly-respected media organisation.’

The official blurb reads: ‘Our mission is to provide a television and digital service that informs, entertains and inspires our audience with a uniquely Australian perspective.’

Since then a new reason has wriggled in: ‘The ABC provides content for Australians living abroad and local audiences living outside of Australia.’ Hello, hello, what’s this? A shift from ‘soft power’ to satisfying a few ex-pats?

Hua responded: “I disagree with the premise that the ABC has made the shift you describe. Perhaps ‘local audiences living outside of Australia’ is an awkward description of Indonesians in Indonesia, Vietnamese in Vietnam etc.”

So ex-pats can feel at home with Lah-Lah’s Stripy Sock Club, Home and Away and Planet America. Some may query that programme’s relevance on an Australian overseas service, but its presence shows our priorities.

In 2018 the Department of Communications and the Arts published a 193-page review of Australian Broadcasting Services in the Asia Pacific, mainly concentrating on short-wave closed the previous year.

The Lowy Institute submission claimed our international broadcasting was ‘under-resourced’. ‘… Australia must overcome its poor record in this area, and make a renewed investment in international broadcasting platforms and content to restore its relevance as a constructive and independent soft power partner in the region.’

What’s happened to the review? The Department’s response was terse and useless: ‘The review is being used to inform policy development.’

Governments and Oppositions endlessly proclaim the importance of Indonesia, stressing the social, economic, defence, security and community benefits of developing a strong and enduring relationship.

The politicians aren’t singing solo. Academics, business leaders, journalists, NGOs and politicians consistently chant the need for better education – particularly language and cultural studies – improved communications and closer contact with the neighbours.

Last year ABC Chair Ita Buttrose, a great fan of ‘soft power’ told the Lowy Institute: ‘The importance of journalism to our country’s Asia-Pacific interests cannot be underestimated and I believe a renewed ABC focus on international broadcasting would greatly benefit Australia.’

So it’s logical we’d be despatching our best and brightest programmes selected specifically for the Republic to back the chorus.

If only. Most offerings on ABC Australia were originally made for domestic audiences. Programmes are moved around without notice. The presenter tells what’s coming next – then something different appears. The channel’s Internet TV Guide is a misnomer; TV Guesser would be better.

On 5 July the long-awaited Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement clicks into place. The free trade deal includes education services, offering an opportunity to couple the ABC and other programme-makers with stations in the region.

ABC Australia is distributed by Intelsat and downlinked by 126 re-broadcasters across the region. They get it free, but the viewers don’t. In Indonesia, three pay-to-use cable services carry ABC Australia. A few take blocks of content – mainly educational – and insert into local channels.

The ABC spends $11 million a year on its combined international services. Hua estimated ABC Australia costs from $2.5 to $4 million a year. That’s significantly less than the $200 million for a decade of Australia Network and the three- year $20 million budget for the old Australia Plus.

Another relevant figure is the $17.1 million suddenly found this year for the ‘PacificAus TV initiative’ which at its best will reach only 11 million. That’s 0.4 per cent of the Indonesian population.

Commented Labor’s Rowland: “$11 million per annum is a drop in the ocean and insufficient to realise the potential of the ABC as a soft power asset.

“ABC funding has gone backwards as other nations seeking to exercise greater soft power increase their presence in the region.”

A report last month (May) by the ‘progressive think tank’ Per Capita for the activist group GetUp! claimed the ABC’s real funding had slipped almost 30 per cent since 1986.

After ABC MD David Anderson announced a new strategy and massive cuts Hua was asked if ABC Australia had ducked the knife: “The proposed changes at this stage do not directly impact on the international services. Of course, any cuts to the ABC effects (sic) the wider teams.”

The TV programmes we export arealmost all in English. Those from Nat Geo are subtitled in Indonesian. Likewise the History Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery, BBC Earth and many others, including crime and food channels.

Said Hua: ‘While it would be desirable to offer localised dubbing and or subtitles, the cost of this across all of our markets is prohibitive.” So Home and Away along with other fare is only accessible to those with a good grasp of English, and that’s few Indonesians outside the well-educated elite.

A survey by the English First international chain of language schools ranks Indonesia behind Vietnam in proficiency. Although English is taught in state schools it’s usually rote learning. Few graduates can handle the spoken word. Subtitling programmes might make them useful in classrooms while helping the kids better understand their neighbour.

Hua said that before the 2014 funding cuts three satellites were used to break up timezones. Now there’s only one, so News Breakfast is screened at 3 am in Jakarta and the 7.30 Report at 4.30 pm. Come daylight saving and the times jump back an hour.

Hua: “With programming like News Breakfast, we do have a preference to run it live … Our audiences have grown to be 1.6 million affluent Asians in 10 markets. In Indonesia it’s 304,745 viewers in the past 30 days.” (It’s not known how many of these are in hotels.)

“We do seek to first reach audiences who have an interest in Australia and who wish to build on that through content across our platforms.”

Question: The impression is that ABC Australia is an unwelcome chore maintained only because required by law yet given insufficient resources. Is that a fair conclusion?

Hua: “No. The ABC marked 80 years of international broadcasting in December 2019. The reputation, audience reach, and the multitude of services is something that Australians should see as a national asset and be proud of.

“The ABC is keen to build more awareness of our services and to explore opportunities to expand Australia’s voice in the region and around the world.

“It’s important for Australians to share stories with people across the region and around the world to build mutual understanding and trust.”

Fine sentiments indeed. Who’d disagree? But this isn’t what ABC Australia is delivering.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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