ABC flags immediate cuts to independent production and rebranding of ABC Comedy

ABC MD David Anderson.

David Anderson.

The ABC will cut the commissioning of independent production by about $5 million a year from July and rebrand the ABC Comedy channel to encompass genres such as arts, science, education and religion.

The brunt of the drop in local spending will fall on the factual slate and to a lesser extent entertainment as the broadcaster prioritises investment in drama and children’s programming.

In further blows to producers, the commissioning of first-run content will be limited to 42 weeks a year instead of 48 weeks, and the entertainment and specialist division headed by Michael Carrington will undergo a reduction in the executive team and operational roles.

MD David Anderson announced these moves today as he unveiled the ABC’s five-year strategy plan for 2020-2025.

He confirmed there will be as many as 250 redundancies due to the government-imposed $41 million annual cut to its operating budget.

“The proposals announced today ensure the ABC can enhance its value to all Australians now and into the future,” he said. “However, we anticipate we will farewell as many as 250 people through this process, valued colleagues who have made tremendous contributions to the ABC and to our audiences.

“This is a difficult time for us, as it is for the broader economy and community as we all struggle with the events of this year.”

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matt Deaner said the ABC’s announcement “compounds the injury to an industry already weakened by COVID-19-related shutdowns, the lack of a comprehensive support package for the sector, reductions in output and funding from commercial broadcasters and a lack of ongoing baseline support from SVODs and other online content providers in the absence of evolved content regulation.”

While Deaner welcomed the continued commitment to drama and children’s content, he warned: “The damage that these cuts will deal to factual and entertainment programming will begin to show immediately, not just for the small businesses which make up the Australian independent production sector, but also for the audiences who sit down to watch these programs each night.

“Not only do shows such as Gruen, Employable Me Australia, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds hold important cultural value for our nation, they also possess significant export potential and support thousands of jobs.”

The ABC Comedy brand will be phased out in the coming months – the new name is yet to be revealed – while comedy will continue to be commissioned for the ABC’s main channel and the Comedy brand will remain on iview.

The online lifestyle platform ABC Life, which some critics have said lies outside the ABC’s remit, will be renamed ABC Local, with a broader range of content sourced from across the organisation including outer suburban and regional areas.

There will be a greater focus on digital and on-demand news services, including discontinuing the 7.45am broadcast-only radio news bulletin and shifting focus to provide news across all audio platforms.

The MD also identified savings through third-party negotiations including Foxtel satellite transmission costs and content distribution network agreements, and through efficiency measures such as production reviews, support services and management restructures.

Anderson said the three-year, $84 million indexation pause announced in 2018 following the $64 million in cuts in 2014 means that, in real terms, operational funding will be more than 10 per cent lower in 2021-2022 than it was in 2013.

While there are no cuts to the number of broadcast channels across radio and TV, he signalled a shift in investment from broadcast to on-demand. Over the next five years he foreshadowed a reduction in broadcast services as audiences continue to move online.

Earlier this month the broadcaster invited staff to make expressions of interest in redundancy while stressing management would retain the discretion on who would receive those offers. The staff cuts would apply across the board to news, entertainment and specialist content divisions, regional and local.

Marcus Strom, the MEAA’s media federal president, blasted the forced redundancies, declaring: “These cuts have a real human cost with 250 people facing unemployment in the middle of a recession and a constrained job market for media professionals.

“Our members were prepared to give management some leeway given the impossible position they were put into by this ideologically obsessed government, but that has to work both ways.

“Members feel betrayed that ABC human resources and management seem intent to return to the shoulder tapping and Hunger Games-style pooled redundancies of the past. The union has in good faith negotiated a voluntary process, yet today HR is already calling people into meetings, which is causing much distress.”

ABC chair Ita Buttrose said: “The ABC Five-Year Plan is a robust blueprint for the future of the ABC that emphasises the important role the ABC plays in the Australian way of life.”

The ABC has reduced travel budgets by 25 per cent and is reviewing its property portfolio to consider options including leasing vacant space or relocating.

Leasing spare capacity at its Ultimo headquarters potentially could create an annual saving of $4 million, some of which could be reinvested in services.

There is also a commitment to increased investment in regional centres, with 75 per cent of content-makers working outside Sydney by 2025, compared with 64 per cent now.

Anderson told employees he and Buttrose would continue to seek the government’s agreement for a five-year funding period, rather than triennial.

The ABC board is yet to respond to Communication Minister Paul Fletcher’s letter to Anderson which asked staff to forgo a 2 per cent pay rise, which was due to come into effect in October, for six months in line with a wage freeze on all public servants.