New report examines risks and potential benefits of public broadcasting rationalisation

by Fergus Pitt

Public Broadcaster reforms could deliver an ad-free SBS and digital expansion for the ABC.

As outgoing ABC chief Mark Scott raised the idea of an ABC-SBS merger, a new report by The Australia Institute explores the risks and benefits of reforms to public broadcasting.

“Public support for the ABC and SBS is as strong as ever. But it is clear that a public media system designed for the 21st century would not look like what we have today. It would not consist of eight free-to-air TV channels, another pay TV service, fifteen broadcast radio services, two separate on-demand TV services, two podcasting catalogues, and two online platforms,” said report author and former ABC manager, Fergus Pitt.

“The missions of the public broadcasters, however, have never been more relevant, their cultures more valuable, or their local market advantages more pronounced.

Four options for reform were addressed in the paper:

  • Combining the board and executive management levels;
  • Combining support and back-office functions;
  • Consolidating digital content, publishing and on-demand services; and
  • A comprehensive rationalisation of services, leadership and management.

“High quality news, local content and multicultural broadcasting all face pressures from a changing media environment, cultural challenges and globalised markets. It’s vital to provide financial and political security for both the ABC and SBS.

“There are no easy answers. The easy reform options will achieve little, while the reforms that could reshape the public broadcasters for the 21st century carry risk.” 

The report identifies the potential benefits of reform to ABC and SBS:

  • Accelerate transition to digital-first strategies, protecting future growth;
  • Remove advertising from SBS;
  • Improve the cultural diversity of the ABC;
  • Strengthen the delivery of SBS’ multicultural charter obligations; and
  • Provide financial and political security for both organisations.

“Simultaneously, a merger of ABC and SBS operations poses risks to the quality and distinctiveness of their services,” said Fergus Pitt.

The report also observes that a merger of administration and back-office functions, under the current structure, will not achieve worthwhile financial efficiencies. The ABC and SBS have already achieved significant operating efficiencies, exceeding those identified in the Lewis Review.

“Importantly, any savings from reform must be re-invested into public broadcasting

Any attempt to reduce expenditure, instead of improving the services would undercut the entire rationale of structural reform,” Fergus Pitt said.

Full report