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May 06th 2014 print

John Izzard

The ABC’s Wasteland

The naked bias that continues to flourish under the indulgent stewardship of Managing Director Mark Scott is but one aspect of the national broadcaster's malaise. When it comes to quality programming, you will find precious little of it. Is vulgarity and the tawdry aping of the commercial networks' fare all we can expect for more than a billion dollars a year?

mark scott frownI seem to remember someone, somewhere, referring to Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership in terms of  “the ruin of Australia as an incomplete project.”  Or was it “a work in progress”? Watching Sarah Ferguson on 7.30  on May 1 the same might well have been said of the ABC. It was possibly the nastiest, tight-lipped, rudest and ill-mannered interview the ABC has broadcast since the heady days of the ever-pious Kerry O’Brien.

Briefly, for those who missed the exchange, Ferguson invited Australia’s Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to discuss the Commission of Audit Report — a report only just released and not acted upon, either by cabinet or government. Her rage was evident from the beginning. Instead of discussing what is possibly the most important document of recent times — the state of the nation’s treasure and how it should be guarded and spent, Ferguson attacked Cormann on the presumed basis of broken promises. Cormann managed a mere 20 words before being interrupted in mid-sentence. Ferguson then continued to interrupt Cormann’s answers, treating him with unconcealed contempt.

Towards the end of the encounter, in an exquisitely measured judicial tone, interrogator Ferguson rounded with:

FERGUSON: A broken promise is a broken promise, Mr Cormann.
CORMANN: We are committed to repair the budget.
FERGUSON: Is a broken promise not a broken promise? It is a very simple question. You promised one thing, you’re doing something else.

Well, actually no, Sarah! No decision had yet been made. Ferguson’s trick was the old when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife ploy. Is this really befitting the national broadcaster? Is it so difficult for the ABC to show some respect to an elected member of the Senate, a Minister of the Crown? Or does the ABC think employing ill-mannered interviewers is part of its Charter? If on-air rudeness by ABC staffers isn’t covered under the Charter, perhaps it falls under Section 18c — you know, the bit about “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate”. After all, Senator Cormann was born in Belgium.

Blatant political bias on ABC Television, ABC Radio and ABC On-line is just one issue. A more serious one is the standard and quality of programme content. Take the much vaunted ABC2, which, according to Wikipedia:

ABC2 is required by charter to meet certain programming obligations. Although it has a strong focus on comedic and lifestyle programming, it also presents documentaries and educational programmes, news and current affairs, children’s shows, drama and sport.

Really?  According to the ABC2 programme guide for Saturday, May 3, children’s programmes ran from 6am to 1.05pm. After that, more kids stuff:

1.05   The Secret War of Benjamin Bear     (REPEAT)
1.30   Charlie and Lola  (REPEAT)
1.45   Octonauts   (REPEAT)
1.55   Rob the Robot   (REPEAT)
2.10   Hanna’s Helpline  (REPEAT)
2.20   Little Charlie Bear  (REPEAT)
2.35   Pocoyo  (REPEAT)
2.45   Jakers! Piggley Winks   (REPEAT)
3.10   Pootle 5
3.20   Peter Rabbit   (REPEAT)
3.45   Arthur  (REPEAT)
4.00   Mister Maker Comes to Town  (REPEAT)
4.20   Chuggington Badge Quest  (REPEAT)
4.25   Pingu   (REPEAT)
4.30   Iconicles  (REPEAT)
5.00   Peppa Pig  (REPEAT)
5.25   Timmy Time  (REPEAT)
5.35   Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom  (REPEAT)
5.45   Humf  (REPEAT)
6.00   The Panjaminals  (REPEAT)
6.15   Florrie’s Dragons  (REPEAT)
6.30   The Night Garden  (REPEAT)

So, from 6am to 7pm — thirteen hours of children’s programmes — all but one show was a  repeat. Not too much drama, sport, news, current affairs or documentaries here — just wall-to-wall re-runs. So much for “respecting” the kids.  Then ABC2 clicks into evening-mode, where we have:

7.00   Spicks and Specks (REPEAT)
7.30   The Restaurant  (REPEAT)
8.30   The Fried Chicken Shop  (REPEAT)
9.20   Alan Carr: Chatty man  (REPEAT)
10.05 The Spoils of Babylon  (REPEAT)
10.30 Cocaine Cowboys (REPEAT)
12.30 am Penn and Teller: Fool Us (REPEAT)
1.15   We Ain’t Terrorists  (REPEAT)
2.10   News Update  (REPEAT)

I wonder whether this was what Senator Helen Coonan envisaged, or was told, when she inaugurated the new ABC2 at Parliament House on March 10, 2005?

So, moving to Sunday, May 4, what do we have on ABC2? Yes, you’ve guessed it, the same programming — 6.00am to 7pm children’s programmes,  and wait for it—the exact same children’s programming as we had on Saturday, the day before. Same time slots, same titles, with only one show not marked “repeat”.

Then Sunday evening on ABC2:

7.00   Spicks and Specks  (REPEAT)
7.30   Penn and Teller: Fool Us  (REPEAT)
8.15   Good Game Pocket Edition (REPEAT)
8.30   Sunday Best
10.00 Louis Theroux Weird Weekends   (REPEAT)
10.50 Ladyboys  (REPEAT)
11.35 Sanctuary  (REPEAT)
12.20 Sanctuary (REPEAT)
1.05   Sanctuary (REPEAT)
1.55   News Update (REPEAT)

I don’t know whether it is with any sense of pride that the ABC management thinks it can get away with presenting a weekend of television on ABC2, which has only two ‘first-run’ programmes over 48 hours. What ever happened to the documentaries, educational programmes, news, drama and sport. It is not as though the world is short of this sort of television content.

But wait, there’s more. ABC3 is apparently the official children’s channel — and from 6am to 9pm there is children’s programming, perhaps for slightly older children, but with over 30 repeats and what appears to be just one first-runner. That’s for Saturday, May 3. Sunday. The next day, May 4, boasts 32 repeats and two first-runs, one of which is News on 3. That’s ABC3.

Then, of course, there is the national broadcaster’s flag ship — ABC1. What ever happened to that? Has the board of the ABC no corporate memory? The time when you watched the best possible television, presented in a dignified manner, when the ABC showed respect for both it’s audience and its obligations is long gone.  Whatever happened to the mind-enhancing, as opposed to mind-numbing? Is there some section of the ABC’s list of broadcasting obligations that forbids musical concerts, documentaries, ballet, opera; programmes on the arts, our history, architecture or indeed the things that might educate and/or entertain.

And I’m not referring to the tokenism shown to these “serious” subjects whereby an occasional arts or documentary is dropped into their schedule — usually in some obscure or late-night time-slot. Talk about dumbing down!

Quite simply, the ABC has over-stretched with the extra cost of running ABC2 and ABC3, together with ABC News 24. This cost has been incurred at the cost of being able to buy top quality programmes. The national broadcaster’s efforts to be young and hip are not reflected in the number of Australians choosing to watch its fare. Ratings of ABC TV as a guide to its audience impact is used by ABC management when programmes are successful, but are rarely mentioned when programmes bomb. Consolidated figures April 6 show the four ABC TV channels (ABC1, ABC2, ABC3 and News 24) getting15.6% of the Australia-wide viewer audience. With just 1.1% of the available audience, ABC News 24 is an unmitigated dog.

In the first top TV shows viewed across Australia, the ABC doesn’t surface in the April 12 ratings until position #26 with the UK made Death in Paradise. Australian Story rates higher than ABC News at #31.  The Checkout at #36 beats Four Corners, which is down at #41 in popularity. If ABC TV cannot compete with commercial television why on earth is it trying so hard to mimic it?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Charter (1983) clearly states that the ABC provide:

(i)   broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertainment…

Perhaps ABC Managing Director Mark Scott can explain how having a news and current affairs empire that follows, almost without exception a left-wing ideology and outlook, contributes to “a sense of national identity” particularly when the majority the nation rejects left-wing ideology and outlook?

If you would like a good example of political bias on ABC TV look at the 7.30’s Sarah Ferguson performance with Cormann. As proof of an organisation in dire need of reform it won’t disappoint.