Oz Pubcasters Beam Down From Very Different Worlds

Australia’s two government-funded networks couldn’t be less alike.

Founded in 1932, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. prides itself on supplying a service that covers 98% of the nation. And using microwave and satellite links, it blankets the 3 million square miles of this vast island continent.

On the other hand, the junior operation, the Special Broadcasting Service, has a signal that has dead spots in Sydney’s inner suburbs. This is because when it was set up 10 years ago, part of the multi-cultural channel’s charter was to break technological ground by transmitting on UHF. Meanwhile, all the other broadcasters are still using the easier-to-receive VHF waveband.

The ABC’s potential audience is 17 million, but, as SBS topper Andrew Lloyd-James admits, the wind has to be blowing in the right direction for the SBS to reach 4 million.

Other differences in scale are equally telling. The SBS has a combined radio and tv appropriation of $A60.6 million ($47.25 million). The ABC’s combined estimates for fiscal 1990/91 asked government for $A513.6 million ($400.6 million). At $A43.6 million ($34 million), the ABC will spend slightly more on television drama alone than SBS-TV’s entire budget this financial year.

While the SBS is eagerly seeking corporate sponsorship deals to augment its cash flow, the ABC is assiduously eliminating any and every reference to private sector support in its programming – even traditional stalwarts like “Esso’s Night At The Opera” are to be decorporatized.

Despite the recession, SBS’ world soccer coverage continues to attract corporate sponsorship. While Cathay Pacific and the Legal & General insurance group broke ground with their funding of 1990 World Cup coverage, this season the Australian Soccer Pools (sweepstakes) are picking up the tab for the three main football games screened each week.

This session of parliament should see the passage of a bill to incorporate the SBS, which will give it a wider latitude to act, freed of many bureaucratic restraints. Given that, the SBS should be in a position to consolidate and expand in the next few years.

In contrast, the ABC’s immediate future is fraught with potential upheaval.

The ABC’s feisty and confrontational managing director David Hill’s contract comes up for renewal in November, and already his critics are marshaling a campaign. The results he has achieved are undeniable, but the feathers he has ruffled along the way reach to the highest levels of government.

Appointed in 1986, Hill set about raising staff self-awareness and instituting a new, aggressive corporate philosophy. He pushed the moribund organization into activity by demanding 100 hours of drama production as starters, and in other areas, Hill has proven that the ABC doesn’t have to be costive to be cost effective.

Besides a new and invigorated approach to programming and promotion, the ABC is merchandising ancillary items such as books, videos and T-shirt tie-ins through a chain of ABC shops, and has launched a new high-profile program marketing operation, ABC International; all indications that the ABC means business.

The ABC consistently breaks politically embarrassing stories in its public affairs programs and invariably depreciates its paymasters as a result. But when politicians complain that certain ABC programs are biased against the government, Hill is swift to defend his people’s impartiality. When they threaten the ABC with funding cuts, he goes to the public, as he did with his celebrated “only eight cents a day” campaign, which is all, he claimed, the ABC costs the Australian taxpayer.

A recent study has shown that the funding of the ABC – in real terms – is at the same level it was in 1973-74. Comparatively, Britain’s government-funded BBC has enjoyed an 80% growth in funding in the same period. In the past three years the ABC has endured a cumulative funding loss of $A80 million ($62.5 million) due to inflation and other factors. In 1990-91 alone it was down some $A32 million ($25 million).

Though a lifelong Labor party supporter, Hill has lost a lot of favor with the present bureaucracy due to his fierce stance on issues perceived to affect the ABC’s integrity and independence.

Of the eight ABC board members, five (including the chairman) are also up for re-appointment. Thus, the atmosphere for Hill et. al is rife for a bit of deck-stacking by the powers-that-be in Canberra.

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