The ABC has just released its 2020-2021 annual report. The public broadcaster’s achievements during this period have been many, from outstanding emergency reporting on bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic to innovative programming that has been lauded both nationally and internationally. But, as Quentin Dempster reports, funding uncertainty continues to stymie the ABC’s future.
ABC faces uncertain funding future
By Quentin Dempster / 21 October 2021
The ABC’s 2020-21 annual report just tabled in Federal Parliament leaves the funding future of the organisation up in the air.
There is no certainty on continuation of what is known as Enhanced News Gathering (ENG) tied funding for regional news resources ($14.8m per annum). The ABC Board still does not know the Morrison Government’s future intentions towards an “indexation pause” first applied by former Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield from the 2018 federal budget onwards. Over three years that “pause” was seen as punitive, costing the ABC $83.7m and forcing the Board into corporation-wide shavings in all in-house and outsourced programming and content budgets. The Board had already restructured the organisation following the Abbott Government’s dishonouring of a pre-election commitment that there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. That remains the biggest contemporary hit to the ABC, with an effective cumulative reduction in operational base funding now amounting to around $100m annually since then Treasurer Joe Hockey plunged in the defunding knife from 2014.
The historic defunding of the ABC can be seen in a “revenue from government” graph on p.134 of the latest annual report. ABC funding has been reduced by 31.1% from its peak just before the Hawke and Keating governments also applied the knife from 1985/86.
Now two years into the chairmanship of Ita Buttrose AO, the ABC Board is hoping that indexation of its operational base funding, reported to be $881m by 2021-22, will resume from June 30 next year, relieving financial pressure.
So far current Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has not responded to the Board’s repeated requests for certainty on indexation or the continuation of ENG which the Board hopes can be made ongoing and therefore subjected to indexation increases.
Buttrose, already publicly critical of the minister for not having consulted her about filling Board director vacancies, is expected to make an issue of the ABC’s uncertain future funding in coming weeks and months.
In the latest annual report, Buttrose and Managing Director David Anderson trumpet the ABC’s achievement as an industry-leader in online content traffic in the digital revolution. The ABC says it is now Australia’s number one digital news brand since the 2019-20 bushfires and the pandemic substantially lifted audience appreciation of the ABC as a trusted source. ABC News reaches more than 50 per cent of the entire population now accessing content on digital devices each month.
The report highlights the ABC’s engagement with audiences, citing 360,000+ completions of the Australia Talks online tool and 8.6 million page views of digital content in four weeks and 4.5 million watching its animated children’s program Bluey across ABCKids and on ABC iView.
But the maintenance of the ABC’s original Australian-made content across the genres from children’s to documentary, podcasts, vodcasts to documentary, sports, news, music (popular and classic) and local and national radio is totally dependent on growing the ABC budget in a media landscape now flooded with global video and audio streamers, both free and subscription, and having WiFi access to every Australian eyeball and ear.
In her foreword to this year’s annual report, Buttrose said:
“There’s no doubt that the Australian media and entertainment landscape is going through a period of revolutionary change.
“Global streaming platforms, like Netflix and Amazon, are reshaping viewing habits across many Australian households. Last year, the Australian Government, seeking to lower the cost burden on Australia’s commercial free‑to-air broadcasters, suspended quotas for Australian content. The aim was to bolster the free-to-air players’ competitiveness against the international giants.
“Australians should be aware of these developments and what they mean for Australian stories and creativity. Thank heavens for the ABC because telling Australian stories is central to our purpose. For nearly 90 years we have created, commissioned and collaborated with independent production houses to make Australian drama, comedy, children’s content and factual programs that inform, entertain, move and provoke.”
While there is undoubted hostility between the Morrison government, the Liberal Party and the ABC over the reporting activities of Four Corners, particularly the items on the PM and QAnon and the bitter Christian Porter vs ABC defamation action, it is now clear the ABC wants its next triennial funding negotiation later this year to concentrate on Australia’s capacity to make home-grown programs and for the ABC to become an underwriter of a local production industry decimated by the pandemic lockdowns and the market incursions by global streamers.
So far Fletcher has not responded to requests that the government mandate local production quotas on the global interlopers. The Canadian Government recently passed legislation requiring the video streamers to spend 30% of revenues derived from Canadian consumers on content to be produced in Canada.
Fletcher is still contending with strident resistance from the free-to-air TV networks to surrender transmission spectrum for on-sale to mobile telephony companies by compressing their multi-channel signals in return for removal of annual licence fees and local content quota concessions.
In his latest report, ABC MD David Anderson said the ABC would require audiences to sign in to an ABC account to access iview to better personalise their engagement with video-on-demand. He promised privacy controls.
Anderson confirmed on the record that the ABC in May signed letters of agreement with Google and Facebook to be finalised later this year. At Senate Estimates the MD is expected to reveal the exact amount of money the ABC will earn from the tech platforms which exploit ABC content in their search and click services. It is speculated to be around $15m annually. Anderson, obviously suspicious that the Morrison government will discount this commercial revenue in the next ABC appropriation, says the Google/Facebook money will be spent on “new public interest journalism initiatives for regional Australia” likely to be announced by the Board after the money drops into the ABC’s bank account.
Anderson has a rapidly escalating dispute with ABC staff over a plan to cease what are known as salary “buyouts” where the ABC agrees to waive staff overtime and penalty payments in return for higher base salaries.
The ABC was forced to self-report to Fair Work Australia when an audit uncovered systemic underpayment of ABC staff. Capped compensatory payments had to be made to affected staff.
Staff like the buyouts because the process does not require them to fill in timesheets and it gives them a guaranteed regular income. The system has worked to the 24-hour operational advantage of the ABC because of staff willingness to work after hours on their content assignments. But staff fear withdrawal of the buyouts will not be compensated fairly, even if they are forced to fill in timesheets, because their employer is notoriously short-funded. Some also fear being unable to maintain their mortgage commitments when banks require proof of gross and after-tax fortnightly income.
The dispute is now coming to a head.
The ABC reports its non-compliance and “enforceable undertaking” to the Fair Work Ombudsman in this latest annual report.
On a more positive note, the ABC emerges from the year dripping with awards, domestic and international recognition.
Hardball won the international Emmy Kids award for best live action TV, First Day won the Rose d’Or for best children and youth series and Banff world media festival Rockie award for best live action children’s program for viewers aged 10 and under. Freeman, a documentary about Olympian Cathy Freeman, directed by Laurence Billet, won the Prix Special du Jury at FIFO 2021 and the Betty Roland prize for scriptwriting at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Catalyst’s episode on “Black Hole Hunters” won the American Institute of Physics Science Communication Award and its “Face Surgeons” executive producer was nominated at the New York Film and TV awards. The ABC also picked up a swag of Walkleys with Mridula Amin bagging notably there, including Young Journalist of the Year for a Background Briefing story “The Hidden Park of Last Resort” about a community fighting for its homes inside one of Sydney’s last long-term caravan parks. The TV documentary series Revelation won the Walkley documentary award.
The ABC annual report celebrates the quality of ABC content by listing this recognition by the ABC’s creative peers. Here’s a reminder.
- Punk in a Pandemic, a COVID-19-related drama created for RN Fictions, won the radio docudrama section at the Asian Broadcasting Union Prizes. Also on RN, Experiment Street from The History Listen won the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards Digital History Prize.
- An investigation by ABC Regional and Background Briefing into stillbirths in regional areas won the 2020 Quill Award for Regional and Rural Journalism, and was hailed by the judges as a ‘powerful and well-told story that contributed to a national outcome’.
- Retrograde, a pandemic-inspired series that championed a diverse cast and supported emerging creative talent, received the Equity Ensemble Award for Comedy.
- Mt Resilience, the world’s first broadcast featuring interactive augmented reality storytelling, won the Australian International Documentary Conference’s Best Interactive/Immersive Documentary Award for its digital depiction of a fictional regional town and its survival in the face of climate challenges.
- The ABC also performed well at the Australian Podcast Awards, winning Best Network or Publisher, as well as Best True Crime Podcast for Unravel True Crime: Snowball, Best Radio Podcast for Double J’s Take 5, Best Indigenous Podcast for Little Yarns, and Best Current Affairs Podcast for Background Briefing.
- At the inaugural Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) Awards, the ABC won five of the six content categories. The Australian Dream won Best Feature Documentary, Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian won Best Documentary/Factual Series, My Body Says won Best Short-form Documentary, The Eleventh won Best Audio Documentary, and Mt Resilience won Best Interactive/Immersive Documentary. The award jury also gave a special mention to Love On The Spectrum.
The ABC 2020-2021 annual report can now be accessed on the ABC website, click here.
Quentin Dempster is a director of ABC Alumni.