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Nobody's ABC

This version 13 July 2003, originally published in The Canberra Times, 10 July 2001, as 'ABC stuck in sludge or a hard pace'.

The battle for 'our' ABC continues. After a litany of complaints about ABC TV's resurrection of the likes of 'Fawlty Towers', another change of direction has been criticised by the Friends of the ABC. It seems that no matter what it does, the ABC can't win. That really ought not be a surprise.

The latest complaints concern the broadcaster's foreshadowed series of lifestyle programs. The 6:30 to 7:00 pm weekday time slot will be occupied by, on successive days, media, health, life matters and motoring reports, with the traditional Friday gardening report remaining in place. Say, think of Radio National's 8:30 to 9:00 am time slot and add some video. Scattered through weekday evenings will be Backchat (back again), Catalyst (Quantum revivified), 'Thank God It's Friday' (which will appeal to 'Good News Week' fans, with which it shares writers), and some public debates.

It is the lifestyle programs that are upsetting the ABC's Friends, with a spokewoman suggesting that there are already plenty of these on commercial stations. She insists that the ABC should be looking instead for 'quality programs'.

Here we get to the nub of the ABC's problems. If any rationale exists for a government funded broadcaster, it must be to provide something not delivered by the commercial stations. The better the ABC is at that, though, the worse it looks. After all the commercial stations run, for good reasons of maximising shareholder returns, popular programs. So the ABC's quest must be to run shows that are unpopular. The better it manages that, the lower its ratings and the more vulnerable it becomes to complaints of 'elitism'.

Of course, the way out of this dilemma is to find programming that is both 'quality' and popular. The present state of commercial TV suggests that to be popular, a program must have something to do with sneaking peaks at people's private lives, throwing a batch of strangers at some house decorating issue, or displaying unaffordable holiday destinations.

One sporadic strength of the ABC has been the creation of popular new programming (quality, I'm afraid, will have to be remain in the eye of the beholder). 'Sea Change', 'Good News Week' and 'Towards 2000' come to mind. The very popularity of the latter two allowed them to slide, within a few seasons, to the commercial world. 'Sea Change', for all its merits, costs a huge amount to make, as much as $450,000 for one episode. A dozen or so dramas on this scale would leave the ABC penniless for the rest of its extensive enterprises.

To say that this strength of the ABC has been sporadic is no criticism. Inventing new TV genres is easy. Inventing popular new ones is hard. Nobody -- not even the professionally excellent staff of the ABC -- can do this routinely.

Criticism of the ABC -- including criticisms from its major source of income, the government of the day -- will never die away. It cannot please everyone. But a person who casts aspersions upon its staff and management because it does not happen to accord with his or her own vision should rethink. It is not the staff's particular interests that is the cause of complaint. It is not the management's previous involvement in commercial TV. It is the ABC's institutional situation.

Consider another industry: retail goods. Do Big W and K Mart attract criticism for failing to sell leading edge designer clothes? Are there complaints levelled at the specialty clothing stores in Sydney's Queen Victoria building for the total absence of ten dollar track suits? The reason for the comparative silence in the press on these outlet's product line-ups is that there is a choice. If you find Target's offerings too expensive, you can go to a cheaper store or even a charity shop. If you find that they do not express your individuality sufficiently, make your way to Manuka or Civic where you can find items that are effectively unique.

It is the very existence of the ABC and legal restrictions on the issue of broadcasting licences that have left the privately owned broadcast media intellectually and culturally barren. The ABC in effect gives away the designer clothes, the electronic equivalent of caviar, the broadcast version of Jaguars and Rovers. How can you sell a Holden Statesman when a Daimler costs nothing? Is it any wonder that the very few free-to-air TV stations that are permitted to operate have to devote themselves to Hyundais?

Pay TV shows that high quality programming is possible in the free market. But this will remain rare while it is being given away by the ABC. In the mean time, the ABC itself will be forever whipsawed for daring to provide 'elitist' programming while funded by the great mass of Australians, or for daring to clone the sludge served up by the commercial stations.

Or both.

© 2001 - Stephen Dawson