Congratulations to our ABC for its forward looking decision to revive its experiment in digital television, abandoned in 2003 when the Howard government refused to continue funding for pioneer channels ABC Kids and Fly. Announced on the eve of the federal election campaign by managing director Russell Balding, the new public TV channel gives Labor a chance to differentiate itself from the Government’s luddite position on digital multi-channelling. More importantly it opens up a space for progressives – within and outside the ABC – who want to reform public broadcasting.
The move effectively gives our national broadcaster a second TV network offering a mix of children’s, documentary, arts, entertainment and news programming – albeit on the usual shoe-string budget. Public broadcasting now has a headstart in the new multi-channel digital game. This will be the only game in town once the analogue signal is switched off. Due to start transmission in March 2005, the new channel is a rare opportunity for the ABC to remake itself for younger generations by experimenting with the form and content of television.
The scuttling of the ABC Kids and Fly was a short-sighted reaction by management to the miserly Coalition government. In terms of myopia, it was akin to the decision by a Decca Record executive to knock back the Beatles because he reckoned guitar bands were on the way out. The high quality achieved on the smell of an oily rag by the talented staff of these digital channels, and the clear evidence that ABC TV needed another network to attract younger audiences and fulfill its charter obligations in our increasingly diverse society, recommended a different course.
Now the federal government must properly fund the ABC’s digital initiative and liberalise the fetters it has imposed on digital TV, which prevent new channels from programming entertainment – a cynical ploy by the Howard government to placate its mates who control commercial free-to-air TV. ABC Digital should be allowed to offer Australians drama, comedy, sport, variety and music. The Coalition policy on digital TV is a cosy deal for existing oligopolies and is inimical to competition.
Australian audiences shouldn’t hold their breaths waiting for the Coalition to deliver media diversity. It was Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government that nurtured the new radio initiative Double Jay. Now in campaign mode, Latham’s Labor should offer a seeding grant to enable the new ABC channel to produce innovative Australian content, and to involve audiences in programming attuned to the interactive qualities of digital technology. Instead of the old silo mentality of Australian TV, the new digital channel could be the medium by which the diverse creative energy in the community, from suburban garages to inner city garrets, can be siphoned into the mainstream public conversation.
I don’t mean a Wayne’s World of amateurism, but genuine democratic talent scouting. A 21st century version of the approach of FJ Archibald’s Bulletin of the 1890s, that scoured the bush and the back lanes looking for poets and artists and discovered the likes of Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Norman Lindsay. The best culture erupts when media enfranchise a passionate community and become clearing houses for new ideas and styles, as happened with the early Bulletin, 70s new wave theatre and cinema, Nation Review, Double Jay and even Countdown.
The digital station also enables the ABC to reinvigorate valuable traditions, beloved by older Australians, that deserve new audiences. Russell Balding has signalled that a staple for the new channel will be recycled ABC programs like Australian Story and Gardening Australia. Instead of just repeating recent popular shows from free-to-air, the ABC should explore encore screenings of its Australian classics like Norman Gunston, Ride on Stranger and Frontier. By digging imaginatively into the gold mine that is the ABC archive, the new channel could feature nuggets from the last 30 years. Aunty should act like a custodian of the national culture and clear the rights on this vintage content. This would give tax payers more bang for our buck, and the tired American repeats of Foxtel a run for their money.
That’s the way the ABC can move forward – as a hothouse and clearinghouse for new Australian talent, while keeping alive its finest traditions.