This week the Gillard Government announced that the Department of Foreign Affairs’ international television network, the Australia Network will now become a permanent feature of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s duties as the national broadcaster, rather than have the network put out to commercial tender. This announcement comes after the Government scrapped that tender process to run the $23.3 million-a-year contract because of leaks during the tender process. The ABC were competing against Sky News (Australian News Channel) for rights to a new 10-year contract.
The leaks saw Senator Stephen Conroy (the Minister Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) cancel the tender process and refer the matter to the Australian Federal Police for investigation. The Commonwealth Auditor-General’s office is also investigating the leaks.
As reported in The Australian on Wednesday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard argued that the decision to dump the commercial tender process, in favour of awarding permanent rights to operate the network to the ABC, was appropriate considering the leaks that had comprised the tender process. Ms Gillard said:
“The government determined that in order to give certainty and to deal with this matter, having seen that problem with the tender round, that the appropriate thing to do was to have these services provided by the ABC.
This is an important arm of soft diplomacy for Australia.”
This is despite the fact that two independent committees recommended the 10-year contract be awarded to the Australian News Channel, the operators of Sky News Australia. Australian News Channel is owned 33% by Seven, Nine and BSkyB. News Corporation is a 38% shareholder in BSkyB.
Whilst there have been many articles written over the past couple of months and especially in the last couple of days, as to the nature of the leaks, the political consequences of the Government’s decision, the fact is that a decision has now been made and focus should now centre on how to grow the Australia Network within the Asia/Pacific and into other new regions around the world.
The Australia Network currently broadcasts into 44 Asian and Pacific nations.
We argued earlier this year that for the Australia Network to be an important player in the international television landscape and act as an effective soft diplomacy tool more money must be invested in the network.
The Government has said that the Australia Network is a major public diplomacy platform, and, as is the case with comparable operators such as the UK’s BBC World Service and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, should be operated by the national broadcaster. If that is the case then more money must be invested into the network to allow it some chance to compete with these worldwide known entities.
Angelos Frangopoulos, Chief Executive of Australian News Channel, which bid for the Australia Network, wrote on Thursday an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald. He wrote that the current:
“…service has a tiny audience by anyone’s standards with just 140,000 viewers per week in the Asian and Pacific regions. Yes, that’s right, just 140,000 viewers in the regions containing 60 per cent of the world’s population — and mostly made up of expats, which sort-of misses the whole point. At the cost of $20 million a year to the taxpayer.”
It should be noted that the viewership figures used by Mr Frangopoulos and referred to in the the Australian of 140,000 have been disputed by outgoing ABC Chairman Maurice Newman, who told the Australian that “Up to 30th June this year  there were something like 1.2 million people who watched Australia Network every week,” he said. “That’s more than CNN and slightly less than the BBC.”
Comparatively the BBC’s World Service, according to its 2010-2011 Annual Review, which includes its online, TV and radio offerings had an average weekly reach of 166 million. Granted that the BBC World Service reaches a greater number of countries but it does illustrate that a well funded network can grab a considerable share of international viewers and act as an effective soft diplomacy tool.
It is unclear which viewership figures for the Australia Network are indeed the most accurate but in any event with more funding the network will grow its audience base.
Under the Australian News Channel bid for the Australia Network contract, Sky proposed to bring the number of countries that the network could be accessed in to 180, including all 20 of the G20 member nations, which Mr Frangopoulos argues is so vital to Australia’s diplomatic objectives. Also Sky’s bid sought to generate greater viewer interaction with the network by expanding the online experience from one to five versions of the website.
According to the Australia Network’s website the goal of the network is to reflect “the values of the Australian nation — open, independent, respectful and fair. These values are reflected in our powerful line-up of thought-provoking local and international programs — all designed to broaden and enrich the perspective of our viewers.”
The network must reshape its identity and engage more viewers not just on TV but online as well. A start would be to broadcast the network online 24/7 (where programming rights allow), similar to what Al-Jazeera does on its website for its English language news service.
Where the BBC World Service is known for its news and insightful program such as HardTalk, the Australia Network’s identity is unclear as it is a cluttered mix of news programming, children’s programming, Australian drama, Australian sport and a raft of other programming.
This is not a suggestion that the network should scrap all this programming, as the network should show a slice of Australia to the rest of the world. The service should also still provide coverage of the AFL Grand Final and Melbourne Cup as these are important parts of Australian society and provide refuge for expats overseas suffering from the lack of Australian sports on TV.
The key for growth must be to establish the Australia Network as a regional news channel broadcasting insightful and relevant stories told from an Australia persepctive. For example the grounding of QANTAS earlier this year affected many thousand of passengers worldwide and the network best placed to cover the crisis for audiences overseas arguably was the Australia Network. The network can already rely on ABC News 24 when big news breaks as well as it many reporters and correspondents around the region. It has the foundations in place.
By making the network known as a major news source and still including in its schedule a sprinkling of other exclusively Australian-made content, whether that be Australian-English lessons, Australian Drama or Australian Sport should help the network grow.
The ABC now has certainty to operate the Australia Network and must now embark on creating synergies between the Australia Network and Radio Australia to make a truly comprehensive Australian international offering. The Asia/Pacific region is home to 60% of the world’s population and the chance is ripe to be one of the leading providers of insightful programming in this region.
The core product offering must be news, as this allows a network to build reputation and more importantly viewer trust and loyalty. Otherwise the network will continue to take a back seat to other English language stations in the region, such as Japan’s NHK World. Figures from research taken by NHK (Japan’s Government Broadcaster) in 2009 reported that in Hong Kong, 17.9% of people were watching NHK World at least once a month, whilst NHK World was the third most popular international news channel in Washington after the BBC and CNN.
It is time that the ABC takes a leaf out of its own book and builds a stronger international media operation by utilising digital media platforms, with the necessary Government funding and backing. The ABC has already achieve fantastic success with local audiences in Australia, through its multi-platform offering which includes the iView catch-up service, smartphone/tablet apps, in-depth online resources and of course its various radio & TV networks.
However to be a player in the Asia/Pacific region (outside of the expat community) and further abroad the ABC needs to grow the Australia Network and Radio Australia both over traditional and new broadcasting/distribution methods. The Government must be prepared to financially back this growth.
It is too late to worry about whether scrapping the commercial tender process was the correct decision, and in any event the outcome of the various inquiries should be allowed to run their course before conclusions are drawn.
It is now time to focus on growing the reach of the network and its influence, through Asia and the rest of the world. The goal must be for a truly integrated multi-platform offering through TV, radio and online to present Australia to the rest of the world.