Cut the buzz, Guthrie and tell us what this means for ABC viewers

Michelle Guthrie
Boss Dec/Jan Photo: Peter Braig
Michelle Guthrie Boss Dec/Jan Photo: Peter Braig

An extra $50 million for ABC content. Eighty new jobs in rural and regional Australia. Who could argue with that?

The staff facing retrenchment - up to 200, gone by June - might have a few complaints.

On Tuesday, ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie revealed a grand restructure of Australia's national broadcaster. Management and support roles will be slashed. (Though she focused on these cuts, up to 70 production workers on programs including 7.30 and Foreign Correspondent are also facing the axe.) The savings, Guthrie said, will be invested in "content creation".

Some staff insist life would be easier without a conga line of managers above them. But often, "cutting support" creates huge technical and administrative headaches. Computer's crashed? That's one hour wasted, on hold to an overseas call centre, all in the name of "efficiency".

A bigger concern is the lack of detail in Guthrie's address to staff.

She acknowledged the ABC's reach on TV and radio is declining: "We have significant audience gaps: socially, culturally and geographically. This means we're falling short of properly and effectively representing - in our employees, content and audience impact - the modern Australia in which we live."

According to the ABC's latest annual report, almost seven in 10 Australian use its TV, radio or online services each week. Almost nine in 10 say it performs a valuable role, and eight in 10 believe ABC television is of good quality. (Fewer than half say the same of commercial TV).

As both The Guardian and The Monthly have reported, Guthrie wants the national broadcaster to reach 100 per cent of Australians. At first blush, it sounds noble. But what would this actually look like?

Some clues can be found in the press release for the $50 million content fund. Ideas from staff are welcome. As is "distinctive content that reflects Australian life", and "specialist genres". (This might raise a few eyebrows in Radio National, following the recent axing of several specialist programs.)

Topping the list, however, are two goals: increasing the ABC's reach, and attracting people who aren't regular ABC users.

Frustratingly, Guthrie didn't specify how this might be achieved. No examples of which ABC programs are already doing this well (or other media outlets).

I know it's early days. There's talk of "collaboration", "innovation" and even "interlocking initiatives". (Guthrie is a former Google executive, which explains the buzzwords.) Still, a number of questions obtrude themselves.

How does the ABC get 100 per cent of Australians to use its services? More reality TV in prime time? More fashion and lifestyle articles online? A top 40 radio station, to compete with the Nova and the Hit networks?

If so, what's the point of competing with content that's already abundant and free?

Focusing on new platforms is another option. Guthrie has already suggested News Corp and Fairfax could use its stories. How would this work in practice?

Guthrie told staff the ABC risks irrelevancy if it doesn't change. This is true - of all mainstream media outlets. But it's one thing to go after new audiences, and another to risk the reputation of your flagship programs.

Consider Four Corners: a public service as much as it is a TV show. Worryingly, Guthrie is reported as suggesting it "be kinder to business", and balance the heartbreaking stories of children stranded on Nauru with happier tales. (As one staffer explained, happy Nauru youngsters are hard to find.) And how can the quality of key news and current affairs shows be maintained with the loss of so many production staff?

"We need to expand digital storytelling in news and take a fresh look at bolstering key genres like the arts, science, business and sport," Guthrie added. This sounds encouraging, what does it mean, in practical terms?

As she acknowledged, the ABC is a "trusted, much loved and treasured Australian institution; our audiences and the broader community appreciate the critical role [it] plays in the fabric of everyday life."

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Guthrie is also correct to assert that its Charter - while vital - can be used as an excuse to oppose every change.

Over the next few days, she and her team will meet with staff around the country. Those workers tell Fairfax Media they're keen for concrete details. So are the the taxpayers. Especially the 16 million already using the ABC every week.

This story Cut the buzz, Guthrie and tell us what this means for ABC viewers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.