The cash-strapped ABC is spending a massive $22 per viewer each week of the season to bring Tasmanian football to a tiny audience of about 3000, reveal figures leaked to Crikey.
Responding to the leak, the Community and Public Sector Union has accused ABC management of collusion and selectively leaking commercial in confidence data to private sector producers. In a letter released to Crikey, the CPSU has called for ABC managing director Mark Scott to hold a leaks inquiry and take disciplinary action.
The revelations are part of the continuing white-hot battle within the national broadcaster over the correct balance between in-house and outsourcing of television production.
Within the ABC it is a current joke that it might be cheaper to shout each Tassie football fan a taxi and a ticket to the game rather than to send the expensive outside-broadcast van and staff each week. The more so since audiences for local football are declining by 30% a year.
These figures are regarded as a scandal by some in ABC management. They are part of a bunch that have been leaked, and that reveal the true cost of the ABC maintaining outside-broadcast vans and production crews, which in turn cuts into the money available for commissioning new television entertainment content.
In total, on a Saturday afternoon six fully crewed ABC outside-broadcast vans cover local football in every state, but the average total audience is just 135,000, and falling fast.
The figures have become available in the lead-up to week Monday’s public hearing of the Senate committee in to recent ABC programming decisions, which was established after the recent axing of locally produced programs, including Art Nation, and resulting staff redundancies.
The Senate hearing is shaping to be a battle royal, with appearances not only by ABC management and union representatives, but also by the people behind some of Australia’s leading independent production houses.
Nasty allegations will fly in all directions. Whether light is generated as well as heat remains to be seen.
In comments to Crikey, the ABC section secretary of the CPSU, Graeme Thomson, claims that if TV budgets have been selectively leaked to some producers, it will give them a competitive advantage. “They would be able to adjust their pitch for commissioning and extract more money out of the ABC. Their bargaining power would increase if they knew exactly how much money the ABC had up their sleeve.”
Meanwhile, Nick Murray, of private production house Cordell Jigsaw, has accused the ABC’s chief operating officer, David Pendleton, of “running an empire of staff and facilities which is not responsive to the actual needs of ABC TV. The ABC should not have these large fixed cost in-house facilities. No other network in Australia has this level of in house facilities”.
The leaked figures show that nationwide, the cost of covering local football is $2.63 per viewer per episode, or $469,000 per episode. This compares to the average cost of television entertainment, which is 23 cents per viewer and $196,000 per episode, with an average audience of 962,000.
Meanwhile factual television content — documentaries and the like — costs 29 cents per episode per viewer, or $94,000 per episode, for an average audience of 489,000.
The background to these figures is a bitter battle within the ABC between head of television Kim Dalton, and Pendleton.
Dalton has argued for more control over the resources spent on television content, many of which are presently tied up in fixed costs represented by the staff and facilities under Pendleton’s control.
The high fixed costs have resulted in reductions of 30-40% in the amount of money available to commission new entertainment programs in the past four years, independent producers claim.
Due to increased government funding being largely tied to production of Australian drama, and the high level of fixed costs, entertainment is one of the few areas of discretionary spending where cuts can be made.
Cost pressures on the ABC are also resulting from the increased cost of buying in programs, caused by increased competition from commercial digital multichannels, and declining sales of DVDs.
The internal battle has resulted in Scott’s announcement in August of an internal strategy to determine the balance between in-house and outsourced production over the next few years.
Those who favour retaining in-house production argue that the capacity it represents is vital for a national broadcaster. Thomson said in comments to Crikey that outside-broadcast vans were used most regularly to cover sport, but were also used for significant regional events such as Anzac Day marches.
He said: “The attack that is being launched by the so called independent producers is all about trying to get their hands on the money that underpins regional multicam coverage … Take away sport and you then also lose coverage of the rest.”
But these comments caused what could only be described as an explosive reaction from Murray, who pointed out that Anzac Day comes only once a year. “That is unbelievable bullshit … all they are trying to do is protect their jobs, and those jobs would exist in the private sector if they were not at the ABC.”
The CPSU, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and groups such as the Friends of the ABC have been conducting a campaign against ABC outsourcing of production — which was given some comfort by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in his comments around the time of the recent program cancellations.
Recently Dalton has been encouraging companies in the private sector to fight back against the union campaign.