McKenzie Wark on 29 Jun 2000 14:35:37 -0000

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<nettime> ABC

It's back to ABC for Aunty
Tony Moore
McKenzie Wark

from the opinion page of the
Sydney Morning Herald
Date: 29/06/2000

The Australian people needs to seriously examine the performance of it's
national broadcaster, the ABC. This should be an open public debate, a new
Dix-style inquiry, not rushed through like the (now seemingly ignored)
Mansfield inquiry, nor presented as a fait accompli imposed through
executive decree.

The Left side of politics should encourage this - Labor and Democrat
supporters love the ABC, much as the Right may have loved the Queen, but
it's time to look at what it needs to be this century. Cultural
rejuvenation of public media requires extreme measures.

Radical surgery is necessary to secure relevance for a public broadcaster
and narrowcaster in the decades to come. Many younger program-makers who
have worked at the ABC were opposed to the creatively stifling Hill/Johns
corporation and are clamouring for sweeping changes to end its
bureaucratic constipation so that it might better reflect 21st-century
Australia and draw on the talent of its citizens. The Left side of
politics, alongside the Friends of the ABC, ignored this option,
preferring a conservative defence of the status quo. Conservatives have
been the most trenchant critics.

However, it will probably take a Labor government to reform the ABC, as
the Liberals describe it as "our enemies talking to our friends". A
Beazley government should not be afraid to radically reform an ABC that's
failing to deliver.

The challenge for the industrial age corporations entering a new century
is to change the way they have traditionally controlled their assets, to
move away from top-down coercion. The industrial era was very much about
hierarchies within hierarchies.

There would be elite and popular broadcasting, there would be broadsheets
and tabloids, and so on. It was just assumed that one was better than the
other. A cultural divide was institutionalised that was inherently
anti-democratic, but it was also the enemy of real excellence. "Quality"
became just a matter of class prejudice, rather than something that had to
be tested.

There's only one real broadcaster left and that's Channel 9; everything
else is already narrow-casting. Channel 10, for example, has very
effectively adapted to a niche role. In a quite different way, so, too,
has SBS.

The ABC has been the Mosman and Toorak Broadcasting Corporation for a
while now. It has sacrificed even the pretence at real quality to being a
class-based broadcaster. It is the broadcaster of respectable junk, aimed
at a middle class that only feels comfortable watching a soap opera if
it's disguised as costume drama or given the alibi of a "classic" novel.
But this is not a very sophisticated way to think about what "quality"
might be in broadcasting. It is time to look at the ABC charter and think
about what new roles a national broadcaster might adopt.

The BBC soap operas so beloved by the Mosman demographic can just as
easily be delivered by pay-TV. Why should a national broadcaster just
subsidise the tastes of people who can well afford to pay for those

Now we are in a broadcast world beyond broadcasting and the industrial
model with its two standard products catering to majorities - "high"
versus "low", is starting to split up. What you now get is cultural

What works is not the one thing that means the same thing to the majority.
It's the one thing that can be read completely differently by completely
different audiences. Broadcast culture is good at enforcing the tastes of
majorities and not good at opening space for minorities.

In practice, the ABC charter and those of many other public cultural
bodies is usually ignored for a sectoral appeal to the Anglo-Celtic upper
middle class. The problem occurs when terms like "public interest" or
"quality" or "non-commercial" are masks for personal taste, class
prejudices or outmoded aesthetics. Taxpayers and consumers have a right to
say how their cultural dollars are spent.

At present, these institutions are run as if they are the property of
those who are in fact our servants. It is a far cry from the sort of
cultural democracy that we should be promoting.

The ABC spends a lot of money making its TV boring - chopping, changing,
recutting, rejecting. It took special talent on the part of ABC management
to lose smart people such as Julie McCrossin, Richard Fidler, Paul
McDermott, Ellen Fanning and Mikey Robins. The ABC followed on the BBC
model of a senior civil service structure reporting to a commission of
politically appointed representatives.

But now we have to talk about public broadcasting as a new matrix of
creative networks stretching deep into the freelance community and
operating to a public charter. There should be certain benchmarks, but
freed from top-heavy bureaucratic control and conservative commissioning

At the time of writing, the ABC chief, Jonathan Shier, has made the right
noises, encouraging creativity to break through the bureaucracy and
bringing an increased audience to the ABC as "light" consumers rather than
playing to a dedicated upper-middle class club. But he has taken the wrong
actions: employing old-fashioned commercial producers and executives
steeped in corporate hierarchy. The craven hierarchical structure that
makes the ABC a plaything for whoever sits as managing director is itself
the problem.

Simply changing the people who wield control in a top-heavy corporate
hierarchy will not change things, especially when these personalities are
"veterans" of 1970s and '80s commercial TV - the high watermark of
formulaic "mass taste".

Rather than use ratings as absolute numbers as a benchmark for the ABC, it
would be far better to use the spread of demographics as a measure of its
success or failure. Something for the old, something for women, something
for the country, something for Perth, and so on. The challenge is to
develop meaningful "niche indicators" that measure how effectively the ABC
satisfies Australian media consumers in their diversity.

A true restructure would radically flatten management, liberate
commissioning to truly reflect aesthetic and demographic diversity and
strip commissioners and sundry managers of the power to meddle in what
goes to air. Inevitably this means jettisoning paternalistic managers who
cut their teeth on a "quality" public broadcasting model that basically
disguised personal class tastes.

Rather than the top-down approach of reforming, perhaps it is a question
of starting again and going back to the grassroots. It's a radical
solution - but perhaps its worth considering.

Let's admit that the ABC is now substantially failing to fulfil its
charter. Let's take a hard look at the existing public broadcasting
institutions and ask whether we can free up that money to start again,
building new kinds of institutions.

Shier has revived that old chestnut of the ABC swallowing up SBS. But what
if SBS were to develop as the primary, rather than the supplementary
public broadcasting service? Grow SBS and wind back the ABC.

Of the two existing models of public broadcasting, SBS has done a much
better job already of adjusting to the post-broadcast, multichannel,
culturally plural world. That, we suggest is a much better starting point
for a future public media sector.

* Tony Moore was a documentary maker at the ABC from 1988-1997 and was on
the ABC National Advisory Council.

* McKenzie Wark is senior lecturer in media studies at Macquarie

This is an edited chapter from a new book, E-Change, edited by Peter
Lewis, to be published by Pluto Press in August.

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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