The decline of the ABC’s reputation and audience presents a serious public policy challenge, writes Nick Cater.
If the ABC was a private company, the board would be pushing the panic button.
Digital disruption has undermined the public broadcasting business model just as much as it has in the private media sector.
The ABC, however, differs from Fairfax, Seven, Nine and the rest in a crucial respect: it’s revenue base is safe as houses. It has not been obliged to make savage cuts to costs, lay-off staff or rethink the way it does business from bottom to top, as my former employer News Corporation has done and is doing.
And its management has been able to grant itself the luxury of complacency, as I discovered when I drew attention to some of the ABC’s challenges in my column in The Australian on Tuesday.
I discussed the damage caused to the ABC’s brand by their chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici’s obstinate stance on cuts to company tax. In denying the broad economic benefits of reducing company tax, I suggested Alberici had joined the economic equivalent of the anti-vax movement.
My second point was that the ABC’s TV channels face serious competition from subscription video-on-demand services like Netflix, the growth of which has been phenomenal in recent years.
The ABC’s complaint that I had misstated the size of its audience came down to an argument over methodology. I chose audience share, the proportion of viewers tuned to the ABC on a weeknight compared to the proportion watching other channels. It is not a bright picture.
The main ABC channel has a share of less than 10 per cent these days and the ABC’s four channels share a total audience smaller than a third of Channel Seven’s.
The ABC’s preferred measure is “reach” - the proportion of the population who tune in to a channel for at least one minute of an event or time band across its total duration. As a measure of audience engagement, it is pretty meaningless in my opinion.
Nevertheless, if we must take audience reach as our guide, the long-term erosion of the ABC’s viewing base is dramatic.
In 2001 almost three quarters of TV capital city viewers (79.9 per cent) were “reached” by the ABC. Last year it was barely a half (52.9 per cent). The exodus of viewers is accelerating; reach has fallen nine points in the past six years alone.
The ABC claims I exaggerated the importance of the Netflix audience. I disagree.
Roy Morgan estimates 7,558,000 Australians aged 14+ (37.7%) had Netflix in the three months to June 2017 – up from 4,453,000 (22.6%) in the March quarter 2016.
The ABC is either in deep denial or whistling to keep its courage up, judging by this week’s response to my column by the broadcaster's head of communications Nick Leys, who called my comparison to Netflix "flawed".
"ABC TV actually reaches more people (aged) 2+ in one day, across both metro and regional Australia, than Netflix reaches in one month," he said.
Perhaps Lees should pull down his copy of the ABC’s 2016 annual report, which says the decline in the ABC’s audience share is “in particular due to the rise in popularity of subscription video-on-demand.”
On present trends, the “reach” of Netflix will surpass that of the ABC in the next two years. In truth, however, the ABC’ reach figure and the number of households with a Netflix subscription are hardly comparable.
The methodology for measuring SVOD engagement is still evolving, but it is fair to assume that paying customers are more committed than those who watch for free.
So heated do arguments become about the value of the ABC, that it is almost impossible to treat them in dispassionate public policy terms, as a think-tank like ours is obliged to do.
Nevertheless we shall try. How do we justify - if indeed we can - the expenditure of more than $1 billion from public funds a year on broadcasting?
It might have been easier in 1983, when the current charter was written. Australians had at most five channels to watch. The best radio could offer was FM, and a computer in every home, let alone in every pocket, was the stuff of science fiction.
In a world in which content abounds, do we really need the state to pay for more of it? And if so, should it do so on a dedicated channel, with all the expense and electricity that entails, when it could provide its content to others to broadcast - Netflix perhaps - and stream news content live on the internet?
These must be questions for a long-overdue review of public broadcasting with a view to revising the charter, a wholly inadequate document to prescribe the expenditure of such a large amount of public funds.
“An echo chamber for left-wing fashionable issues,” comments one. “An embarrassment to itself and an albatross around the neck of the government,” comments another.
“Unwittingly, Ms Alberici has done the country a favour,” writes Virginia. “It is impossible for the regressive Leftist ABC to deny/excuse/justify their way out of this one. It's pay back time.”
Others notice that the bias is entrenched and subtle. “I notice that Bill Shortens promises to rip up our IR laws seem to been missed by Auntie,” comments Laurence.
“Ms Alberici is simply mouthing dogma,” writes JJ. “It is inconceivable that the ABC could do anything else. We have had example after example of simply inexcusable tosh.”
Many readers seem to agree with me that the ABC was once better than it is now. “The ABC is a hollow shell of its former self,” writes one reader. Others wisely warn against taking a rosy view of the past. “The ABC has been rubbish for four decades,” writes Ross.
The ABC’s failure to recognise its own failings is deeply frustrating. “The amazing thing throughout this whole process is that at no point has Alberici ever just said, ‘I apologise for the errors contained in my article,’” writes Stephen. “This has done nothing but compound the problem and made her look immature and belligerent.”
“This organisation needs to take off its cloak of self adulation and superiority and pseudo ideas,” writes Anne. “Q&A the smuggest debating society imaginable,” adds Steve.
Few, if any, respondents believe the ABC reflects their views, or that it represents mainstream Australia. “Who do they claim to speak for?” writes George. “Certainly not the thinking public. When are we going to rid ourselves of these parasites? Let’s privatise it.”
Critics of the ABC are quickly branded right wing, or extremely right wing. Their facts are assumed to be dodgy and their reasoning poor. Quite possibly they are in the pay of big business or other vested interests. So heated is this topic that it almost impossible to make a higher-level argument about the allocation of public funds.
It might be nice to get Peppa Pig, David Attenborough and Shaun Patrick Micallef for free, just as it was once thought a good thing to give free milk to schoolchildren. Whether it can still be justified, however, is another issue.
Respondents to Tuesday’s column overwhelmingly believe it can’t. “As one of the herd of Australian tax livestock vigorously milked and herded by three levels of Government I was wondering if anyone agrees with me that spending on the ABC in its present form is an affront to democracy, personal freedom and common sense,” writes Will.
“Why in the age of the internet should any funding go to the ABC apart from that which is given voluntarily, such as a subscription? What possible logical argument can be made to retain the ABC in its present form?”
Fady agrees. “We all pay taxes and I think most reasonable people are happy to contribute to fundamental services such as health care (Medicare), education, roads, social security, etc. I simply cannot understand why we as taxpayers should be forced to fund an organisation that for the most panders to only side of the political divide.”
“What is really criminal about this is I still pay for it via my taxes - it must be either sold or scrapped,” writes Terrence.
Davydd writes: “I can't agree with your claim that we need a public broadcaster, Nick… The ABC is an obsolete sheltered workshop for the otherwise unemployable and its component parts should be reconstructed into subscriber only services. Thus, it would stand or fall on its merits, as judged by its customers.”
One common line of defence by ABC supporters appears to be that commercial TV channels are worse than the ABC. Another is that The Australian is unfit to throw stones, since it has its own biases.
Yet, as one reader commented, “the ABC is different because we pay for it. “I never bother to read anything from Fairfax or The Guardian because I know that most of the output is biased toward the Left and in my opinion, is often inaccurate and not worth wasting my time on. Conversely, I am prepared to pay a monthly subscription to The Australian because I think it's a high-standard newspaper that tries hard to be accurate and fair. If anybody wishes to consume anything produced from Fairfax, 60 Minutes, or even The Australian, that's their prerogative. There is no compulsion to buy any of these.”
Another writes: “It's a heck of a large amount they get. For this, we should expect that money to be wisely spent and this means it should be accurate and timely. Many of us have huge objections to our taxes being diverted toward a political soapbox commandeered by leftist staff at the ABC.”
Ivan: "Scandalous is the situation where my taxes are funding this left-wing propaganda machine that is the ABC. It's an abomination, shut it down now!"
Rebecca: "All so true about the totally redundant ABC. Make it a voluntary subscription fee and see how long it lasts in the free/real world market."
Can anything be done? Anne suggests force-feeding ABC employees with Tuesday’s column would help. "This should be read, read and read again then eaten and digested by everyone at the ABC from top of the stairs to the basement,” she writes.
Many readers suggest privatisation as a cure. If the ABC is as valuable as its supporters claim, why would it be afraid of an open market? Let “the pampered overpaid lefty opionionistas who run this group-think commissariat obtain all their funds through voluntary subscriptions,” says Lawrence.
“The only true test of the popularity or otherwise of the ABC is to make it a subscription service,” writes Ian. “Let those who are loudest in their praise for it stump up their own money every year.”
“It would be gone in days if we had a choice!” claims Andrew.
The prediction that the ABC will slip into obscurity if it continues on its current path may already becoming true, judging from comment of at least one reader. Peter writes: “Is the ABC still going?”
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