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'OUR ABC' A DYING CULTURE?

MARTIN HARRISON

Platform Paper 1

One way forward for arts programming

MARTIN HARRISON

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 ‘The ABC is not fulfilling its Charter obligations to the Australian arts. A long history of poor management appointments, poor policy decisions, government interference and a lacklustre board lies behind the declining significance of ABC television, radio and online services … But nowhere is the problem of decline more strongly felt than in the area of the arts.’ So begins Martin Harrison’s analysis. ‘Arts programs on TV are now rare. Talk-back abounds on radio, but informed specialist discussion is confined mainly to non-arts programs.’ Nothing could exemplify the cultural difficulty more readily than the debate about the need for a ‘right-wing Phillip Adams’. ‘How will offering a Liberal Party spokesperson serve to open up a wider cultural and critical debate? This is insulting to ABC viewers and listeners and suggests the ABC is itself intimidated and partisan. Worse, it insults the ABC’s longlived, glorious tradition of liveliness and intellectual independence. What we are witnessing today is the destruction of a whole tradition of longlived engagement with the world of arts and letters.’ But Harrison is no reactionary. He examines our fast-changing habits and argues forcefully for new cross-boundary broadcasting, a new kind of ABC, recognising and embracing interactive viewing and listening practices—and above all, for a new channel for a new world; and a radical community approach to funding it. Is not this, after all, the responsibility of ‘our ABC’?

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About the Author

Martin Harrison was founding producer of ABC Radio Art in the 1980s and presented the writers’ program Books and Writing. He has written extensively for radio and is a widely-published poet.

For if the ABC is not the key national ‘thinker’ in culture and the arts, why do viewers and listeners agree that it deserves substantial Federal money for a creative and intelligent cultural agenda? Indeed, is the ABC still a serious player in arts and culture? If it is—or wishes to be—what is needed to re-establish ABC media at the heart of current Australian work, whether in the world of letters and writing, in drama, in film, in media art, in digital art practice, in commentary and discussion? After all, isn’t this central creative space the one it ought to occupy? Isn’t this one of its core role?

Comments

Congratulations to all at Currency House for the prescient publication of the first of their Platform Papers, 'Our ABC: A Dying Culture?' Martin Harrison's challenge to a renewal of cultural programming at the ABC had only been on my desk for a few days when the ABC announced its new approach to the arts on television.

Central to the strategy announced by the ABC and to Mr Harrison's analysis is the issue of 'audience'. To whom is the ABC speaking and to what end? Commercially driven, ratings based, broadcasting depends upon defining 'audience' in the broadest sense, what Martin Harrison refers to as the 'common denominator' approach. The ultimate end is 'bums on seats'. The question of what bums, and to what purpose, is a second- or third-order question. Content is subservient to the end of maximising the number of viewers or listeners. This form of broadcasting is essentially reactive. Yet it has succeeded in portraying itself as radical and exciting. It has done so by deriding traditional public broadcasting as 'Reithian' and 'paternalistic'.

In fact, even from its foundations in the relatively mono-cultural 1930s, public broadcasting recognised that an audience-driven approach could not adequately reflect the diversity and depth of the culture. The charter of the public broadcaster was both to give ear to critical minority voices and to actively engage with them. As Martin Harrison appropriately quotes, 'The functions of the Corporation are […] to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.'

Under this mandate the ABC became a major national production house. It did not simply reflect the culture back on itself, but engaged artists, writers, composers, in creating original works of art. Editorial structures were developed which saw 'content' as the primary focus. Range and quality were central to the task. Serving the audience was not crudely identified with ratings, but with a recognition that in encouraging diverse particular audiences you enhanced the whole.

The past twenty years of cuts to the ABC have, as Martin Harrison suggests, put that public mandate at risk. Editorial diversity, expressed through decentralised specialist program units, is demeaned as 'staff-capture'. Specialist production structures are being progressively dismantled. Budget control has been removed from the content specialists and given to the network managers, whose success is dependent on increasing audience numbers for their network. Network and divisional separation has led to program makers working in one division being asked to resign rather than transfer when offered assignments in another division. Management structures look more to the corporate 'command and control' model than that of the public institution. As budgets have declined, the pressure to find 'alternative'

(i.e. commercial) revenue streams has increased. Commissioning criteria have ceased to be centred on content and are more often couched in terms of potential audience share and future program sales.

The paradox is that under budgetary and political pressure, and losing confidence in its own ability to realise its charter, the ABC may not widen its cultural appeal, but narrow it. Commercially-derived audience definitions may deliver higher ratings for some programs, but in the process many of the communities the ABC once served are ignored. As the ABC's relationship with the arts and cultural communities changes from active engagement with to passive reflection on, so the loyalty and commitment of those groups to the purpose of public broadcasting may diminish. One day the ABC may be so successfully mainstream that a parliamentarian will be stirred to ask, 'Why are we paying for this?'

The ABC News and Current Affairs division stands as the exception that proves the rule. Craft specialists steeped in a coherent editorial culture run the division. Integrity of content remains the central focus. Television programs as diverse as Four Corners and Australian Story are indicative of its continued success.

To the degree that Martin Harrison looks to commercial co-productions as a way forward to a renewed and more diverse ABC, he risks falling victim to the very dangers he so clearly delineates. Advertising determines scheduling, and co-production shapes content. Both of these revenue streams are predicated on maximising audience for return on investment. Hence, 'common denominator' pressures will apply. To Mr Harrison's challenge, 'Some sort of non-classical, media savvy approach to art and performance may well be just what that 20-something and 30-something audience wants', Arts at the ABC has responded with 'a road that often fuses high art with popular culture, that sometimes borrows the techniques and formulas of reality TV, and that has good entertaining TV-as opposed to the worthy but dull televisual recording of arts events-as its goal'. (Katrina Strickland, the Australian, 5 August 2004)

Whether these initiatives are the fulfilment of Mr Harrison's best hopes or worst fears may shortly become evident.

John Cleary is an ABC broadcaster and former staff-elected director on the ABC Board. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of the ABC.

If what we talk about most is a clear sign of what really interests us, then the way in which-let alone the diminishing extent to which-the arts are treated in our Australian media probably indicates a declining esteem for those arts amongst the citizenry of this country. It is, after all, in the media that our most public conversations take place.

Our media all fall far short of what they could achieve-whether they are assessed against their own best standards of a couple of decades ago or against the range and quality which, say, the best German press offers its readers. It is common for our press people to argue that, without greater advertising revenue, they cannot provide more space for the arts, but this argument is spurious on two grounds. First, there is, in fact, already a great deal of (quite expensive) advertising by arts organisations and companies in the press; and secondly, these harsh conditions never seem to apply to the coverage of sport and restaurants, for example.

But the problem is not simply a matter of the quantum of space devoted to the arts; it is the quality of what is written there, as well. In recent years, two damaging things have occurred: one is the almost total disappearance of the distinction between reportage and frank marketing, and the other is the odious intrusion of fashion (in diverse senses) into the 'arts' pages.

The ABC is as guilty of all of this as the commercial media, but it has less excuse. Whereas the press and the other electronic media are fundamentally commercial operations, as Martin Harrison reminds us in 'Our ABC' A Dying Culture?, the ABC has an important additional and legally mandated charter. Yet the ABC violates that obligation daily and, seemingly, with impunity. That is, I suppose, hardly surprising when its current management is an accountant-previously it was run by the advertising world-and not an experienced editor. Despite this, our legislators seem concerned and vexed only by perceived political bias: debilitating aesthetic lacunae, frank animus towards the arts, failure of a serious legal and social obligation, all appear to count for nothing or else are conveniently ignored by our importunate politicians.

The cause of this malaise runs deep in the ABC, as a true reflection of the nation which is-arguably-the most anti-intellectual in the Western world. That problem is at its most serious in music. For all the faults of the atrophic treatment of literature, for example (as Mr Harrison identified), it is nonetheless true that politics and books (to a lesser extent, history and pictures) are dealt with on Radio National as subjects fit for adult minds. Such music as we hear on that network is nothing more than jejune adults reliving the inchoate popular music of their long-past adolescence: no musical maturity has remotely set in. It is as distasteful as it is a failure of obligation.

ABC-FM is, in its own narcissistic way, not much better. Apart from the affected tone of its announcers- making the ABC truly seem like the Adelaide Boys' Club-it essentially eschews serious structural or sociological musical analysis and it offers no serious music reportage at all, while most of its recorded concerts originate from overseas (doubtless for budgetary reasons).

So the political attacks on the ABC are directed at quite the wrong targets. I agree that, as a whole, it would be indulgent hyperbole to assert that nobody would seriously miss most of ABC Radio; but such a pessimistic view would be almost entirely true of television, particularly for those concerned about the arts. The lost opportunities are numerous and debilitating. Martin Harrison's criticism lets the ABC off exceedingly lightly.

John Carmody is a Sydney critic and medical scientist.

And an update from Martin Harrison, author of 'Our ABC' a Dying Culture? (Platform Papers No. 1)

It has been heartening to see the way the publication of the inaugural Platform Papers essay on the ABC and the arts has contributed to a larger debate-mainly in the press and, in part, on air. Of course, Liz Jacka's report has been vital too in provoking more discussion1. Firstly, it is clear that ABC TV's recently-appointed Courtney Gibson was, unknown to all of us, already trying to make real inroads in improving TV arts programming. Hopefully we will see the fruits of that work later in the year. Indeed, the thinking and debate about arts seems to be mainly going on in TV.

By contrast what, if anything, is happening on radio- and in particular the floundering, audience-depleted Radio National? The silence from radio management is deafening. Why such silence? The ABC is not a private corporation or a family business. ABC management and the Board have a responsibility to publicise their thinking and policy and to engage in wider dialogue. My essay was meant as an encouragement to come out of the bunker, and has obviously been only partly successful.

Secondly, while more coverage and more cleverly devised programming is welcome, my essay was also about the changing, 'new' viewing habits emerging at present, not least new habits to do with crossovers between traditional forms of broadcasting and on-line, web-based and download formats. I feel we need to include this issue in future discussions about the arts and the ABC, because if we are going to encourage new audiences and increase audiences for quality broadcasting, and if we are going to make fresh opportunities for the work of writers and performers and artists, then we have to go where the audience is. We have got to acknowledge where that audience, as it were, 'positions itself' across the array of contemporary media.

Finally, when I review much of the recent commentary about this issue, I continue to be dismayed at the way media folk see the arts as not much more than a set of things (pots, paintings, festivals etc) to be talked about and maybe filmed. My view of the arts, and the role of broadcasting in relation to the arts, includes those elements, certainly. But I also see the arts as both artworks and all the ideas which engage with, and are fired by, making art. Crucially, too, I see the arts as including performance art, like plays and films as well as encompassing media arts and experimental practices in TV, radio and on-line media. As I am sure many folk at the ABC agree, a few more programs about fine pots or old sculptures will not deal with the question.

The ABC has to lead the way in arts broadcasting across all the platforms with which it is involved. Unless it can do so, how can we possibly mount the arguments to restore adequate funding to the organisation? Sadly, very little discussion so far has focused on a key background element to the problem: namely, the obvious failure of the current ABC Board to offer new directions and initiatives and to develop the strategies to fund them.

Professor Jacka's report into the state of ABC arts programming, Arts by Stealth, was released in April 2004. It was commissioned by the Community and Public Sector Union.