||Issue No. 138||31 May 2002|
Interview: The Star Chamber
Politics: The Odd Couple
Media: Audiences Before Politics
International: The Off-Side Rule
Economics: The Fake Persuaders
History: Terror Tactics
Poetry: Food, Modified Food
Review: Spiderman Spins Out the US
Satire: England's World Cup Disaster: Star Hooligan Breaks Foot
The Locker Room
Week in Review
In Defence of Latham
Swans A Pathetic Con-Job
Audiences Before Politics
In tackling his new job, Russell Balding, an ex-accountant, need look no further than the Report of the Australian National Audit Office, Corporate Governance in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation which found serious problems with the standards of corporate governance in the National Broadcaster. Sadly the political obsession with who would be annointed managing director has exacerbated a serious structural problem identified by the Audit report, that lambasted a culture of managing up to the top of the ABC pyramid rather than consult with audiences in shaping content. If politicians like Peter Costello or board members like Michael Kroger really care about the ABC they should be talking about audiences not whinging about alleged bias against their party. In my opinion the Auditor's concerns about lack of management accountability, the decline in young adult audiences under 40 and the long term failure of the ABC to better understand its consumers call for the radical reform Mr Balding says is not necessary.
It is no secret that ABC Television is looking worse for wear, but the standard excuses of reduced funding and the exodus of creative talent do not explain why ABC TV is so stale? Commissioning, production and scheduling occurs at the whim of the senior executive service rather than in reference to audiences. In the absence of targeted audience research and performance indicators ideas are greenlighted and vettoed on the basis of personal tatse which, from the evidence of my TV, is depressingly middle brow, risk averse, British to its bootstraps, and in a word conservative - these moguls in cardigans are a far cry from the radicals of Liberal nightmares. . How many 'crazy ideas ' have failed the good taste test? Left to the mercy of personal prejudice it is doubtful that the successful BBC comedy Ali G have made it through the ABC's commissioning hoops? How many others have got up, only to die on screen , the victim of a thousand compromises. In the case of the ABC the fish Aunty reject doesn't make her the best.While ABC TV's share of viewers 18-39 has declined by 13% since 1990, it has increased its share of people 55 and over. TV management's reaction to these figures has been to define the over 55s as its core audience, and do what it can not to alienate them - a shortsighted strategyif ever there was one.
The Auditor finds that the ABC has made little effort to measure if is meeting its Charter responsibilities to reflect Australia's diversity, lacking until recently even basic professional performance indicators standard in a modern business. The Auditor identifies a problem of managers working up to the apex of the corporate pyramid, rather than down to stakeholders that seems to have been exacerbated in recent years. Most senior managers, relatively new to the ABC, were ignorant "of specific features of the Commonwealth's accountability framework � and do not perceive any major role for themselves [in public accountability] outside their line responsibilities to the Managing Director". The Auditor is particularly scathing about the ABC's failure to use audience research to consult with its audiences and to learn more about their preferences and tastes.
The Auditor criticised the ABC for relying on inappropriate and statistically confused commercial ratings services such as OzTam and the Neilsans when comparable public broadcasters in Europe employed sophisticated qualitative and qualitative methods to engage their audiences in programming. The ABC "appears to be somewhat behind the majority of overseas national public broadcasters in measurement of the outcomes it expects to achieve." The Auditor advised in the strongest terms that because the Charter enshrines terms like 'innovative', 'high standard', 'sense of national identity' , 'cultural diversity' and 'multicultural character' of the Australian community the ABC could be expected to have a methodology that would enable consistent reporting to Parliament in relation to these concepts. The Report advises the ABC to undertake new measures to understand why its share of the audience is changing and to guide strategies to increase its appeal to disenchanted groups such as young adults and people outside the cities.
The ABC has replied that it is "totally committed to research" as a strategic tool to meet the needs of its audiences and to meet the Charter mandate. The audience research section of the ABC is to be boosted, with more outsourced and in-house audience testing and the establishment of an "Audience Appreciation" service similar to that operating in the UK. This is to be supported. But consultation across audience demographics must be made mandatory on television program makers during the program bids process and after programs go to air. It should be a transparent process, carried out against agreed bench marks.
Placing audiences at the centre of programming is 'radical reform' and would trigger a profound change to what we see on ABC TV. There is no substitute for originality of ideas but program-makers have everything to gain from a more meaningful dialogue with audiences. Innovation and ideas can be tested with its target audience when the inevitable doubts are raised by Commissioners about a proposals acceptability. In Drama, documentaries, comedy, and info-tainment decisions over style, format, story or timeslot can be made with deep knowledge of the audience rather than on the basis of anecdote, instincts or personal bias. Clearly the ABC editorial responsibilities, together with time constraints minimise the practicality of audience testing in the news and current affairs. However programs with longer turn-around like Four Corners would benefit from detailed audience feedback about topics and style.
Of course a minority of paternalist program-makers and executives will oppose formal obligations to consult audiences as 'commercial', but this is to see the world in terms of a crude dichotomy between the old elite public broadcasting and the old mass broadcasting. Commercial TV stations are interested massing audiences together by appealing to the lowest common denominator. A 21st century media is concerned with audiences in their diversity, satisfying those niche interests that help to make us unique and encourage a vibrant, complex culture.
The Charter requires the ABC to provide innovative services. Everyone supports innovation, but real innovation often offends, angers or leaves one underwhelmed. One person's innovation is another's old hat. Similarly with the term 'quality' that is bandied about by program-makers and defenders of the ABC - one person's quality may make no sense to another person. Perceptions of what constitutes 'quality' may depend on particular cultural literacies which nowadays are not shared by a community criss-crossed by aesthetic and attitudinal divides. This is the real challenge of a divergences of opinion based on age, geography, ethnicity or class that Australia is still to deal with.
Public broadcasting has always sought to identify the tastes of the tertiary educated upper middle class with a universal notion of 'quality' that is seldom tested. 1940s House is good and the Big Brother House is bad, although both are unreal reality programs.The trouble for reformers is that the ABC gives most of us what we love - sober, abstract discussion of public affairs; BBC dramatisations of classic literature; truly intellectual radio programs; and bucolic soaps that buy into our childhood memories. A diverse society with many different ways of seeing de-stabilises this once sacrosanct notion, throwing open the parameters to a wider, range of ideas, aesthetics, personalities and stories. The sheer volume and diversity of media in the post -broadcast age means people will be constantly exposed to things they don't like. But it is important to think about our fellow citizens who are left out by the old model of broadcasting. Surely it's not unreasonable to take into account Australians with different tastes, icons, knowledge, humor and dreaming?
The big problem for the ABC is how it caters for younger adults up to age 40 who are different. All the evidence shows younger people are watching less and less free to air TV. The Auditor noted that they are moving to alternative leisure activities such as the Internet, subscription TV and videos. What they are watching less of is mass model media, that looks to common denominators. The 'loyal' ABC viewer is making way for the discriminating conditional viewer, who makes an individual choice from the array of media options at their disposal - the internet, books, videos, games, pay TV, radio, cinema, chat lines, magazines, and commercial TV- on the basis of personal interests and passions. Media that seek to treat the under 40s as one group, to attract them on the basis of what they are assumed to have in common, will have no audience - its about serving and providing access to the public as diverse groups. Its also about being playful with the medium of TV, in the way that SBS, 2JJJ, Foxtel and even Channel 10 are. In my view the policy response to audience fragmentation, increased lifespan and the exponential growth in information diversity is a second television channel, that expands on the ABC's worthwhile experiments in digital television , ABC kids and Fly , the youth service.
Liberal politicians claim a special interest in making organizations business-like . In an ABC context this means a flatter, smaller management structure that devolves power down to more autonomous teams and accountability of content makes to consumers who as theoretically sovereign as both the shareholders and market. Historically Labor stands for robust public institutions, the advancement of democracy and a lively Australian culture, which it understands as diverse. Labor should therefore champion a bottom up reform of the ABC that gives the Australian public a meaningful role in ABC governance, and a fair dinkum input into programming. Imaginative reform of public institutions like the ABC is the radical alternative to the crude dualism of market forces or a sentimental clinging to the status quo. Yet both parties are locked into leaving in tact an essentially authoritarian structure so that they can wield influence over a board undemocratically stacked with their mates. The craven hierarchical structure that makes the ABC a plaything for whoever sits as managing director is itself the problem and simply changing the people who wield control in a top- heavy corporate hierarchy, whether steady as she goes accountants or crazy ideas people' will not change things.
Tony Moore is the publisher of Pluto Press
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