The ABC was meant to be a market failure broadcaster, but given it now slithers into every corner and crevice of Australia’s media market, that reason for being isn’t applicable anymore, writes Evan Mulholland.
The ABC, as a subscription service, is not as farfetched an idea as you might think.
This week Boris Johnson’s Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that funding to the BBC would be frozen and the forthcoming licence fee announcement would be the last.
It confirms a long held belief that the Conservative Government will end the license fee and allow it to move to a subscription model beyond 2027, where the license fee agreement is due to end.
“The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content,” she heralded.
A source told The Guardian that “It’s over for the BBC as they know it” and “The days of state-run TV are over”.
Refreshing, isn’t it?
The media here in Australia like to paint the Johnson government as widely to the left of the Morrison government on climate change, a government it should emulate.
Perhaps the Coalition should now take a leaf out of the Conservative Party playbook and match its BBC plans with their very own plan for releasing the ABC from government ownership.
Launched in 1932, even the ABC acknowledge that the ABC ‘was based on the BBC model’.
Australian policymakers at the time liked the idea of the BBC as a cultural institution which could bring high quality music, opera, high culture, to a media market which prioritised pop culture.
The ABC was meant to be a market failure broadcaster, but given it now slithers into every corner and crevice of Australia’s media market, that reason for being isn’t applicable anymore.
A recent freedom of information request conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs found that the ABC spent $4.28 million of advertising, promotions and audience research between July and November 2021, using millions of dollars from its taxpayer funded coffers to diminish the market share of its commercial media rivals.
Now that the ABC’s original template, the BBC, is transforming beyond government ownership into a form of subscription service, it is about time we had a sensible discussion about the future of public broadcasting in Australia.
The difference for the BBC is that they have a separate license fee whereby every household with a television set is required to pay the fee of around £159. Viewership of the BBC is much more likely to be seen as a tax in the UK.
Australia did away with license fees for the ABC a long time ago, it is simply paid out of general revenue. That doesn’t mean it’s not a tax, but for a lot of people they don’t notice it.
Perhaps if the bill for the ABC every year was sent to taxpayers like a typical power bill, Australians would be more conscious of how much they are paying for a service they probably aren’t even using.
The latest 2021 ratings reveal the ABC has slipped back behind Network 10, with an audience share of only 16.6% compared to to 29.1% for Seven Network, 28.4% for the Nine Network, and 17.8% for Network 10. But how many of that 16.6% would be willing to pay for the ABC?
Polling commissioned by the Menzies Research Centre, conducted by True North Strategy, found that only 21 percent of Australians would subscribe to the ABC if it became a subscription service like Netflix, and asked how much Australians would be willing to pay for the ABC, the average answer was $2.94 per month, well below what Australians currently pay via their taxes.
Many in the government privately (and some publicly) agree something needs to be done about the ABC, but many fear the reaction of the broadcaster and other media to any sort of reform option, or debate about the future of the broadcaster, given its outrageous and overzealous reaction to NSW Senator Andrew Bragg initiation a brief Senate Inquiry into its complaint process.
But here we have a conservative government in the UK, where the Prime Minister has long contributed to the public policy case about the future of the BBC, making the case for that reform, and then proceeding with it.
And the sky hasn’t fallen in.
If anything, it has helped Boris to steady his government amid recent scandals by prosecuting a policy his Conservative base support, given the risk of a splintering vote on the right at this year’s Federal Election, the Morrison Government too could follow a similar strategy.
Polling conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs found that 43 percent of Australians believe that it is unfair that Australians who don’t watch the ABC are required to pay for it, while only 30 percent disagreed with that proposition.
With its mother station set for a subscription-model future, now is the time to have a serious debate about the future of the ABC.