It’s difficult to think of the last time a serious discussion was held about the role and size of the ABC, largely due to the fact that every time the topic is broached someone like Piers Akerman or Andrew Bolt bumbles along declaring the ABC should be privatized or abolished or that David Flint should host Media Watch and the whole thing gets railroaded. As such despite a steady stream of hyperbolic abuse from stereotypical Newscorp types, the ABC is pretty well shielded from any serious criticism because those more mature, critical voices are just drowned out by the cacophony of crazy. Which is a pity because though I love the ABC and watch more of it than the combined commercial networks I would tentatively suggest that it goes far beyond the basic public service which any government should provide.
To be clear there are a few elements of the ABC which I think should be virtually quarantined from spending reductions, one of them is Children’s Programming. Children don’t have disposal incomes, it is not fathomable much less possible for the market to equitably cater for them. I expressly want Children’s TV to be well funded.
Another is News and Current Affairs, my view is that a well resourced reporting and analysis broadcaster free from the market pressures to sensationalize and dramatize is conducive to a well informed, politically engaged, democratic populace. The News, 7:30, Lateline, 4Corners,The Business and Hack all play wonderful parts in our media and I’d be sorry to see any of them go. Some of the infotainment programs on the other hand like Insiders and QandA are pretty indulgent uses of public money, I love watching them (a colleague says I’m a ‘TV masochist’ for QandA) but it’s not hard to think of better uses for the public money.
The ABC also does phenomenal work during emergencies and events of national significance, their coverage of the Queensland Floods was the best of any network, although they too fell guilty of sometimes having the Auslan interpreter out of the camera frame, and there is a good reason why Kerry’s O’brien’s team always tops the ratings on election night.
It’s the light entertainment sector that really sits uneasily with me. This may be open me up to charges of being a philistine but I’ve never seen a compelling argument as to why a light entertainment program that’s not capable of remotely approaching market viability on a commercial network should be financed out of public revenue. There’s no reason why programs like Spicks and Specks, Summer Heights High and Rake could not have been successes on commercial networks.
Many would argue political satire would flounder and die on a commercial network due to pressures from network supporters but I suspect that not to be the case, if Roy and HG can present programs like The Monday Dump on a commercial network without feeling as though their artistic integrity is compromised then there is no reason why The Chaser or Shaun Micallef could not do the same and if a program, perhaps Wednesday Night Fever, was unable to achieve market viability perhaps there is a sobering explanation as to why that may be the case. The Gruen Transfer series might be an exceptional case, where so much of its appeal stems from the (apparently) free and frank criticism of commercial sponsors it would likely run into difficulties on a commercial network. Perhaps the ABC should be for exceptional cases like this.
These are not the results of a rigorous audit, I’m happy to be persuaded that the ABC’s light entertainment division should be left intact. It would be nice however if we could try, just try, to have a public discussion about the ABC which didn’t become polarized along left-right lines and that didn’t become dominated by hyperbole. As enjoyable as I find the ABC’s programs to be, it is right and proper that mature discussions take place about the spending of public money, we should be able to be circumspect with public money without being lumped in with the Larouchites and if we can’t, then tragically the Nick Cater’s of the world may have a point.