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Working Papers

The ABC: A Case Study in Updating PSB in Politically Polarised and Cash-Strapped Times

Public service broadcasters (PSBs) frequently have to decide how to invest in digital to reach more diverse and younger audiences, whilst not alienating loyal audiences and political stakeholders or antagonising commercial providers.

This working paper The ABC: A Case Study in Updating PSB in Politically Polarised and Cash-Strapped Times, examines how one PSB, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), plans to respond to this challenge whilst faced with diminishing resources.

The paper focuses on the organisation’s first year under a new Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, against the backdrop of the ABC’s recent and often turbulent history, and makes comparisons with the BBC along the way. It explores Guthrie’s new strategy of establishing partnerships with third-party digital platforms, as a way of extending the organisation’s reach from 70% to 100% of Australia’s population.

Australia’s government has been positive about Guthrie’s plans. However, the paper cautions that the ABC’s relationship with politicians is made more fragile by its three year funding cycle, and the fact that governments are often just as vulnerable to discontent within their own ranks as to the official opposition. In addition, the country’s volatile and highly polarised political environment means that the ABC can often be caught in the midst of a culture war, with rows over disputed coverage flaring up and prompting politicians to rush to judgement. Given that, effective oversight and confidence in editorial decision-making will be just as important in avoiding political challenges as making the right strategic choices in response to changing technology and audience behavior.

Until recently the ABC’s relatively limited funding and reach have protected it from the criticism from commercial players that its larger PSB equivalents in, for example, the UK or Germany, have become accustomed to. But now there are signs that Guthrie’s ambition to reach every single Australian, on any platform they choose, may fuel more vigorous opposition from commercial media organisations, who are themselves laying off staff in the face of very challenging business conditions and fear that a resurgent digital ABC may damage their prospects.

The future health of the ABC will largely depend on how well it can chart a path through these editorial, strategic and commercial challenges, whilst investing for the future with reduced real resources, and working to retain its reputation for trusted coverage, in the face of an increasingly polarised political environment.