ABC TV: Something's missing

Christine Harris-Smyth

In November 2003, ABC TV’s publicity department proclaimed more Australian content, more primetime Australian programs, 31 new Australian shows and 20 returning Australian programs and series. Does this mean 2004 will see “innovative programming reflecting the cultural diversity of the Australian community”, intended to “encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and performing arts in Australia”, as per the ABC Charter?

In the past 15 years the ABC has been through enormous changes, including numerous restructures, none of which has masked cutbacks in funding, staff and local programming. Since the 2001 appointment of the widely respected Sandra Levy as Head of Television, the ABC has achieved higher ratings and broadened its audience demographic.

Under Levy, Head of Programming Marena Manzoufas has built a regular schedule for audiences. In primetime, we expect murder and mayhem on Friday, comedy on Thursday and quality drama and cultural programming on Sunday. The programs have been of a high standard and included some strong locally produced shows. But something has been missing.

Despite the new dramas, excellent current affairs and comedy, there is no hiding the overall erosion in the quantity and breadth of Australian content on our screens. The ABC’s 2002 Editorial Policies state: “Experimenting with new ideas also means accepting that some programs may not succeed. By pushing the boundaries, the ABC stimulates and develops creative new program genres and styles. This may result in programming which challenges some community sensibilities but also contributes to the diversity of content in the media.” But in-house ABC TV programs that push style and content boundaries have been rare, making challenges to community sensibilities or the development of new genres unlikely.

For some time the ABC has been commissioning independent producers to make much of its leading edge Australian content. However, it seems goodwill is not particularly high since producers find themselves barely breaking even on work they produce for the national broadcaster. At the SPAA (Screen Producer’s Association of Australia) Fringe 2003, respected documentary maker Michael Cordell (A Case for the Coroner) commented on increasingly tight margins. Many other program makers have made similar remarks.

The ABC’s editorial guidelines encourage arts coverage, take pride in the ABC’s place in Australia’s cultural life and clearly state that experimental programming is one way to meet the requirements of its charter. Changes are afoot in the newly merged Arts and Entertainment department under the management of Courtney Gibson. The extension of Gibson’s portfolio in late 2003 was interpreted by many, including RealTime (Editorial, RT58), as indicative of the arts’ diminishing importance at the ABC. Gibson argues that the merging of departments gives the arts more muscle, much needed stability and her own fierce commitment. Many of the new Australian shows for 2004 have been generated by her department. Several are studio-based, making them cost effective because they use existing ABC resources. These include Strictly Dancing (Come Dancing meets Strictly Ballroom, hosted by Paul McDermott), a new version of The Inventors and Amanda Keller’s Mondo Thingo.

Cost is often cited by ABC executives and staff as a major barrier to increasing Australian programming. While budget limitations are real, Gibson is very approachable and interested in new ideas: “I want us to speak directly to program makers and not hide behind another layer of bureaucracy. That way you can know in 2 weeks rather than 2 years if we are interested. We need to make quick but considered decisions, and not be paralysed by the amount of work under consideration.”

Gibson is equally refreshing on the subject of her role as Head of Department: “At SBSi [SBS Independent] I learned how to treat people, how to be of service to the industry. That’s what you’re doing in these jobs. You’re trying to support work and provide a means by which emerging filmmakers and arts practitioners can have their work explored on television. It’s a service orientation. I’ve tried to bring that to the ABC.” She is also adamant that senior management supports her endeavours: “Any idea that arts programming is not fully supported is not borne out by the fact that I asked for extra resources for 2004 and got them.”

Given her short time on the job, Gibson and her newly appointed Executive Producer Amanda Duthie have taken some bold steps in reshaping arts programming in 2004. With Deputy Programmer Ian Taylor they’ve developed a more coherent approach to Sunday afternoons. Gibson notes: “Sunday afternoon has treble the resources it had last year, treble the shooting and edit days, the addition of 2 full time producers plus the commissioning of packages and interviews from all over the country, breaking that Melbourne-Sydney nexus that’s formerly held sway.”

Sunday afternoons have been programmed in a series of themed seasons beginning with photography. As acquired shows differ in length, there is room in the schedule for purpose-made programs about Australian artists and relevant short films. Across the year the department will also produce a series of ‘in conversation’ style interviews. New faces can be expected in the interviewer’s seat, including Bec Smith (ex-IF magazine) on film and Sherre Delys (ex-The Listening Room) on contemporary classical music, and Gibson says they will be looking outside the ‘usual subjects’ for interviewees. The material garnered from these interviews can be packaged to fit available slots but will also form an important archival resource.

Expect changes to Critical Mass, with Gibson clear about directions the panel show might take: “I am as interested in what a geneticist thinks about the work of Patricia Piccinini as I am in what a photographer thinks. That is a program where we can, and should, have different perspectives.” Critical Mass will be broadcast on Sunday night following Compass and be repeated the following Sunday afternoon.

But what of Australian arts in primetime?
While Amanda Keller’s Mondo Thingo is billed as an entertainment show it will be covering popular culture, including film. The New Inventors features a rotating panel of designers interrogating work and inventors.

There is an enormous amount of production on Gibson’s shoulders and reason for caution about the likely success of so many new programs. Fortunately, Gibson does not work in isolation. She has the support of management, as well as a skilled staff and an external network of program makers and artistic practitioners.

Somewhat in the background is a discrete enclave known as the ABC Arts Advisory Group. Chaired by the formidable Margaret Seares (former Chair of the Australia Council), the public hears little of their deliberations but the following exchange between Seares and Tony Jones on Lateline in 2001 gives an idea of her position:

Jones Do you hold the view that at the present moment the ABC is failing to deliver its charter?

Seares: I think a lot of us were quite taken aback…when on the Littlemore program [Mediawatch] we had a retrospective of arts…on the ABC going back to the 70s and 80s, and I think a lot of people realised then what the cuts in funding have done in terms of depleting that sort of representation on our television screens today. So that’s why I think it is an important issue to have some debate around.

Many would passionately agree with Seares’ sentiments.

The equally important matter of the coverage of Australia’s unique and invaluable indigenous art remains unexamined. If the arts should be everywhere across the ABC schedule, surely Indigenous issues and perspectives should be treated just as seriously.

While funding cuts have undoubtedly contributed to the decline in the depth and diversity of ABC local programming, senior management also bears responsibility for embracing strategies that do not effectively meet the requirements of the charter. Ratings are often used by the ABC as a key indicator of success, undermining the notion of developing challenging works and diminishing the immense value of arts programming that documents and furthers the evolution of Australia’s rich creative and cultural life.

Courtney Gibson will be speaking on arts programming at AIDC 2004.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 23

© Christine Harris-Smyth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004