The ABC’s outgoing managing director Mark Scott has called for a “grown-up conversation” about merging the nation’s two public broadcasters, arguing it could save the Federal Government $40 million a year.
In his last National Press Club address as ABC boss, Mr Scott also made the case for the Government to at least maintain the ABC’s current level of funding, warning the only way the broadcaster will be “strong and relevant” in the future is with adequate financial support.
Earlier this month, Mr Scott questioned whether there was still a need for both the ABC and SBS and today he revealed he discussed the idea of merger with his now retired SBS counterpart.
“Some years ago, towards the end of his term as SBS managing director, Shaun Brown and I had a number of conversations about how a peaceful merger might work,” Mr Scott said.
“One that would safeguard a distinct identity and remit for SBS and allow the public broadcasters to be more distinctive, in clearly delineated spaces — with no overlap.
“But it wasn’t to be. The idea was rejected at the SBS board level and Shaun wasn’t given license to pursue the conversation further. It ended there.”
Mr Scott told the Press Club that conversation needed to be refreshed and he proposed a kind of “friendly merger” that would preserve each broadcaster’s identity while delivering substantial savings.
“By coming together, SBS and the ABC could still offer distinct brands under distinct charters,” he said.
“But it could be done without an entire separate back office, stand-alone buildings, studios and technology, IT, legal, finance, HR and corporate divisions — or a separate board.
“We could spend more of the funding serving audiences.”
See Mr Scott’s full address below
According to Mr Scott, merging the two broadcasters would save about $40 million of the $1.3 billion spent on public broadcasting each year.
“Increasingly, the ABC and SBS have tripped over each other, as each strives to meet audience and programming needs best, to maximise audience engagement,” he said.
“At times we’ve even bid against each other for programs and content — and there have been scheduling frustrations as well.
“This has increasingly been the case as SBS has moved away from multi-lingual programming on its main channel in recent years as it pursues advertising revenue.”
Scott makes case against more funding cuts
Mr Scott made his speech as the Federal Government finalises the ABC’s funding arrangements for the next three years.
Mr Scott noted the Gillard Government gave the ABC an extra $20 million a year during the last funding round, and urged the Coalition to maintain that funding.
“That News funding represents 10 per cent of the ABC’s News budget, and to cut it now will mean significant cuts to jobs and programming,” he said.
“If it was not renewed, it would represent the third substantial cut to the ABC’s budget since the Coalition Government was elected on a platform not to cut the budget.”
Since the Coalition Government was elected, Mr Scott said the ABC’s funding had been cut by $350 million.
“The ABC’s share of Government expenditure is effectively at its lowest level in decades now and the per capita spend on public broadcasting is significantly lower than many other nations, and dramatically lower than the BBC,” he said.
“The greatest challenge to the future of the ABC, ironically, comes from those who fund it on behalf of its owners.
“Today’s Government. Future governments.”