QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Michelle Guthrie’s strategic plan for the ABC.

Jun 15, 2016

New ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie now faces a choice.

She can simply manage the ABC’s government-decreed decline or reorganise its resources to make distinctive, original and quality content the institution’s strategic priority.

The choice she (and the ABC board which appointed her) make will become apparent when the ABC publishes its updated corporate plan.

This is the key publicly posted document promulgated by the board which sets the resourcing and content priorities.

The current 2015-16 plan reiterates the ABC’s defunding by the Commonwealth (Abbott/Turnbull) government and the external context, otherwise known as ‘digital disruption’, where audience loyalty can no longer be assumed. With increasingly popular video streaming services taking many of the ABC’s eyeballs away in prime time television viewing, the ABC faces the same challenges as domestic commercial network television.

The ABC’s metropolitan and regional AM and network FM radio services seem more resilient. The digital revolution has helped to justify the taxpayer investment in Radio National through the phenomenon of pod casting where the network has found a bigger domestic and validating global audience.   Radio National program makers are in anguish over a management restructure which builds up executive layers when specialised programming to keep the network in the game of memorable, distinctive content is considered crucial.

The youth network Triple J has similarly justified its investment, although Classic FM, with its older audience, has suffered cuts to live performances and is becoming dependant on presenter-less continuous loop broadcasting to the exasperation of aficionados.

The ABC’s television multi-channels – ABC, ABC 2 (mainly replay) ABC 3 (children’s) ABC News 24 have exploited Australia’s universal digital transmission system to great effect to reach most of the households of Australia.

There may be savings ahead if ABC 2 was axed. The ABC catch up service iView, already a success with audiences accessing through their digital TVs, online or mobiles, does the replay trick just as well. But those savings are likely to be pin money when the need for distinctive content against the offerings of Netflix, Stan, Fetch-TV and other streaming interlopers, is taken into competitive account.

Guthrie faces a headache with the damage inflicted by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s unilateral termination of the Australia Network DFAT contract. The MD is reported to have expressed the view that its replacement, Australia Plus, scrambled together by the ABC as the axe fell on 80 Australian Network specialists and in situ correspondents in 2014, is so thin it is becoming a risk to the ABC’s reputation. How a credible international service can be rebuilt without renewed investment, even with no impediment to the pursuit of advertising and sponsorship revenues carried by ABC international broadcasting, is problematic.

The recent controversy over the ABC’s firewall breakthrough to a potential Chinese audience of 700million through AustraliaPlus.cn, where the ABC/China contract effectively self-censors contentious news and current affairs content, has highlighted the reputational risk. (Australia Plus websites posted in other Asia Pacific countries reportedly contain no similar contractual constraint).

There is an expectation within the ABC that the Turnbull government will be returned at the federal election on July 2.

In such an eventuality Guthrie must deal with a worsening budgetary position which would be unlikely to change through her five year contract.

Seductively Labor leader Bill Shorten has offered $60million over four years for drama production and $20million for the broadcasting of women’s sport. Mr Shorten is yet to declare that he will restore to the ABC the $100million (10%) a year base funding cuts dishonourably made by the Abbott government from July 2015. Some budget rescue might be hoped for if there was a change of government.

But hope is not a strategy for the ABC’s MD or corporate planners.

Guthrie has been spending her induction time visiting ABC offices around Australia and talking off the record and off site with management and staff.

She is aware of a recent all staff internal survey which showed the current levels of distrust of management by program-making staff.

According to the leaked survey and reported by Myriam Robin in crikey.com, only one in four, 25%, of the 3000 survey respondents, thought that the ABC lived up to its stated value of integrity, openness and honesty in communication with staff.

This evidently represents the bruising period of downsizing endured by the ABC over the last two years as 400 broadcasters were made to walk the redundancy plank.

According to Robin: “On the question of whether the ABC lived up to all its values, the body scored just better than half, with 51% of respondents choosing this option”.

So Guthrie has work to do with winning back the staff’s trust and respect.

As a former senior executive for News Corp. and Foxtel there was corridor speculation that she was a plant of an ‘evil’ Murdoch empire. But this has largely been discounted. As a statutory appointment an ABC managing director has obligations and duties under the ABC Act and any hostile decision or conduct immediately would be apparent.

It is Guthrie’s relationships with the Prime Minister and the Communications Minister which are the ones to watch.

She has already ruled out full scale commerciality on the ABC’s domestic services. She is understood to be unconvinced that charging for iView would be a worthwhile idea, mainly because of its impracticalities (a data base of registered users and expensive ongoing marketing would be required).

The mooted merger of the ABC with SBS is not a decision she has the power to make. The Liberal/National Coalition is not seeking a mandate from the electorate for such a merger. If it were to occur if would require a preparatory consultation with all stakeholders. At the moment all such stakeholders say that, on balance: No. The Labor Party remains opposed to a merger.

While recently departed ABC MD Mark Scott has been credited with brokering modest budget enhancements received from the Rudd and Gillard governments to transform the ABC beyond broadcasting to multi-platform digital services, including text publishing, the harsh reality is that the relentless content demands of the regime he created is hard to sustain on available funding.

Michelle Guthrie, also a former and most recently a Google executive, is well aware of the criticism which has accompanied her appointment by the ABC Board, chaired by James Spigelman, that she is not a leader in content.

In conversations she has emphasised content as her priority.

But it is on that key choice, content, that action will speak louder that words.

* Quentin Dempster, a public broadcasting advocate, is political editor of The New Daily.





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