ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie’s survival strategy for the national broadcaster is to re-invest brutally extracted payroll savings into new “extraordinary” content.
Ms Guthrie encouraged staff on Tuesday to come up with “exciting” new creative ideas to use the $20 million available immediately, and then $50 million per year in a content fund she says her flattened management restructure will deliver.
While the content-first strategy remains unspecified, the fund will deliver 80 new regional reporting staff.
Ms Guthrie’s newly appointed executives must first deliver a corporation-wide body count in redundancies of managerial, but mainly support services, to deliver recurrent savings.
Significantly, Ms Guthrie has installed David Anderson, a long-standing ABC technocrat, to the top content job as director of television to help take on “powerful global giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Netflix”.
In her presentation to ABC staff on Tuesday, in which she announced a 20 per cent cut in management positions – with 150 to 200 to leave the ABC by June 30 – and the compounding of 14 divisions into eight, Ms Guthrie said: “Transformational change over the next year is essential.”
“We lack the flexibility to quickly adjust to the fast changing audience trends. Our reach on television and radio is declining and digital is struggling to bridge the divide. We have significant audience gaps, socially, culturally and geographically. This means we’re falling short of properly and effectively representing in our employees, content and audience impact the modern Australia in which we live.”
ABC content fund to be ‘contestable’
Ms Guthrie said the $50 million-a-year content fund would be “contestable”, with the program commissioning criteria to be posted externally.
Competition would be fierce.
“This is the biggest sum the ABC has ever committed to such a venture. It’s warranted and timely,” Ms Guthrie said.
“I’d love a creative solution that gives us a strong lead-in to the all-important 7pm ABC news program,” she said. “We need to expand digital story telling in news and take a fresh look at bolstering key genres like the arts, science, fitness and sport.”
The new structure, to be “platform neutral”, is said to address consistent staff complaints about unaccountable management, duplication and operational choke points.
The new ABC divisions are: News, TV, radio, regional, audiences, technology, finance and engagement.
ABC International – gutted two years ago by the ABC’s loss of its $20m-a-year separate DFAT contract and the shutdown of much of Radio Australia – will now disappear, to be rolled into the new divisions as will ABC Commercial.
The ABC closed down its ABC Shops and most ABC centres in retail outlets around Australia in 2015.
From this week, affected ABC staff are being called into redundancy rounds to receive what is called “the long white envelope”.
On the eve of the 2013 federal election, incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously promised there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.
Soon exposed as a lie through the 2014 federal budget cuts, the Turnbull government, struggling with an intractable deficit, has been unable or unwilling to cut the ABC any financial slack.
With Facebook and video streamers like Netflix now stealing once-loyal ABC viewers, Ms Guthrie has acknowledged the content challenge for the national broadcaster.
The ABC’s audience was no longer “rusted on”, she lamented.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism. He tweets at @QuentinDempster