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ABC chief Guthrie continues to Peppa us with same excuses

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

ABC chief Guthrie continues to Peppa us with same excuses
Illustration by Sturt Krygsman

Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

It will come as some relief to the 4000-plus employees at the ABC to learn that the animus towards them is confined to “vested interests” and a few crotchety Pauline Hanson voters.

That, at any rate, is Michelle Guthrie’s story and she’s sticking to it. Seventeen months into her tenure as managing director, Guthrie is looking like just another defender of the status quo rather than the reformer many hoped she would be.

In a speech to a dinner on Friday hosted by ABC Friends, Guthrie blamed commercial media rivals and “a political vendetta by one party uncomfortable with being scrutinised by our investigative programs” — read One Nation — for the pressure to change the ABC charter, which she insisted is working just fine.

Really? The thing was written in 1983, for goodness sake, when we hadn’t even heard of the internet and the dirty great box sitting in the lounge room could pick up five analog channels, or four if the wretched cat had been rubbing its butt against the aerial.

The feebleness of Guthrie’s argument was clear when she reached for the Peppa Pig defence. An annual public investment of $1.2 billion a year in the ABC is necessary, apparently, to prevent a cheeky cartoon pig, saddled with a half-witted grandfather, falling back into the clutches of commercial television from whence it came.

Peppa Pig is produced by a commercial enterprise in Britain. The ABC makes money on the side by flogging Peppa Pig bath mats, hairbrushes, glitter domes and other licensed products. No one would want a pig who identifies as a human to feel unwelcome at the diverse and inclusive ABC, but it’s high time this little piggy went back to market.

The ABC’s annual report is due on the minister’s desk around about now. Somewhere buried in the appendix will be the figures showing how fast the ABC’s audiences are falling.

Twenty years ago ABC television reached more than 70 per cent of the metropolitan population. Last year its “reach” figure was less than 55 per cent. By “reach” these days they mean a TV set somewhere in the house was tuned to an ABC channel, but not necessarily being watched, for at least a minute during an average week.

The report will confirm about three-quarters of us never listen to ABC radio, and why would we unless we want an update on climate change, Manus Island, gender diversity in ice hockey or the latest passive-aggressive song by a Canadian singer no one has heard of?

Comparing digital, radio and TV ratings is difficult, but whichever way you look at it, a third or more of the population does not care for the national broadcaster’s content — broadcast or online — and might not come across any of it in the course of a day if the ABC didn’t use search engines to push its stuff up the page.

Yet they still have to pay for the stuff because, unlike Foxtel, Netflix or The Australian, they’ve made it impossible to cancel your subscription.

Falling ratings for broadcast TV are not just the ABC’s problem. Mobile phones and fast broadband are gobbling up free-to-air audience at a ferocious pace. At the end of 2011 the average Australian spent more than 94 hours a month watching broadcast TV; in December last year the figure had dropped to 81 hours, a fall of 14 per cent in just five years.

Meanwhile the amount of time spent watching video on a computer or laptop has quadrupled across the same period from three to 12 hours and mobile phone viewing has doubled.

Which tempts the question: how much longer will it be worth running hundreds of transmitters from Borroloola to Wirrulla capable of pumping out 9 megawatts of effective radiated power when we can watch it all on fast net?

The audience for broadcast content is not going away, however, it is just getting older. A clear market segmentation is developing between younger and older viewers. Australians under 35 watch 40 per cent less conventional TV than they did five years ago while the over-50s spend just as long watching it as they always did.

The ABC’s business model, like that of any other broadcaster, is profoundly challenged by these trends. It may not feel like that on the executive floor or the ABC’s inner-Sydney headquarters since, unlike commercial broadcasters, the ABC’s revenue has not fallen.

Yet the ageing of the broadcast audience surely should prompt a review of strategy. Should the ABC continue its relentless quest for millennials or should it recognise its potential to service the growing market segment of viewers over 50?

The media business, obsessed with the cult of youth, has tended to overlook the fact Australians are getting older and will get older still until the second half of the century at least.

One senses, however, the ABC is not particularly comfortable with old people. They tend to be — how should we put it — a little bit conservative, a little more attached to older values, such as patriotism and families, than it would like.

They can’t be blamed for that, of course; more than half of them didn’t finish Year 12.

They didn’t have the benefit of a gap year in Peru; indeed, they had no chance of enrolling for a degree in cultural appropriation and privilege checking. Let’s rerun a few episodes of Antiques Roadshow — surely that will keep them happy.

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