ABC v Sky News Australia: Round 1

At 7:30 tonight the ABC will flick the switch on their new free-to-air digital only channel, ABC NEWS 24. The channel will be available on the now defunct ABC HD with a simulcast of the launch program for the new station available on ABC1.

In the midst of a hotly contested Federal election the long awaited channel will go head-to-head with Australia’s first 24 hour news channel Sky News Australia. Sky News appears to have struck the first blow however with Sky News’ Political Editor David Speers hosting the only leaders debtate between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on Sunday at 6:30pm.

After much criticism was directed to the ABC for its failure to ‘go live’ in the lead up to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s dumping (despite ABC breaking the original story), ABC NEWS 24 should provide some welcome good news for the taxpayer funded broadcaster. The news channel will draw on the ABC’s extensive news network both locally and internationally to provide breaking news and analysis. Flagship programs for the new station include ABC News Breakfast, Australia Network News, Midday Report, Afternoon Live, The Drum and The World. The channel will also repeat ABC1 Flagship news programs Lateline and Australian Story.

However the real story is not so much the launch of the station, which the ABC should have done years ago much in the same vein as BBC News Channel, but the potential damage the channel could do to Sky News Australia.

In response to this new threat Sky News Australia Chief Angelos Frangopoulos has been a vocal critic of the new ABC venture. He has claimed that ABC News 24 is a misuse of taxpayer funds, will hurt other media businesses and will erode quality of ABC’s core TV progamming. Mr Frangopoulos has even gone as far to critcise the use of the name ‘NEWS 24’.

He told The Australian, “It is odd that the ABC wants to use the brand News 24 in Australia given that we have been using it for many years. That said my core complaint is that without the ‘ABC’ in front the words “News 24″ it has the real potential to confuse their new service with our established service, a fact that has been recognised in correspondence from the ABC itself.”

Steve Allen, managing director of media agency Fusion Strategy said last week in the Australian Financial Review that ABC NEWS 24 will erode Sky News’ already small audience, which has a reported weekly average of just 13,000 viewers.

However the growth of free-to-air digital channels should have been an opportunity to expand the audience reach of Sky News rather than face an eroding audience at the hands of the ABC. This is because the parent company of Sky News, the Australian News Channel Pty Ltd is owned by the Seven Network and Nine Networks along with BSkyB. Therefore to combat the ABC expansion why has Sky News not taken the opportunity to launch as one of Seven or Nine’s digital-only multichannels?

In the UK their Freeview digital platform provides access to up to 50 digital channels. This includes BBC News Channel, BBC Parliament, CNN and BSkyB’s Sky News UK. The addition of a pay-TV news channel such as Sky News UK to the Freeview platform enables the station to extend its audience reach at no monthly charge to the viewer.

If this strategy was followed in Australia and Sky News Australia was to launch on a digital-only channel as either Seven’s or Nine’s new digital offering (which the networks are planning to launch later this year or early next year) this would not only extend audience reach of Sky News, thereby increasing its wider influence, but also provide a viable and well-established option to those viewers who do not subscribe to Foxtel or Austar and do not want to watch ABC NEWS 24.

Since 1996 Sky News has found a niche with reporting and analysing  political, public affairs and business news (for example launching Sky News Business channel). However, its audiences remain small and it still relies heavily on content from Seven News and Nine News to fill its rolling news schedule.

If Sky News wants to win the Australia Network contract from the ABC and build on its strong relationship with China’s CCTV it needs audience reach. Pay-TV penetration in Australia currently sits around 32% compared to an estimated 57% of the population that will have access to the new ABC NEWS 24. The easiest way to achieve this reach will be to strike a deal with one of its free-to-air shareholders to rebroadcast the channel as a digital-only channel. Therefore Sky News will have greater audience reach (which will continue to increase in the lead up to the analogue switch-off in 2013) and provide Seven or Nine with a low cost digital channel. Sky News if it were to launch on free-to-air would also allow News Limited through its parent News Corporation which owns a 39% stake in BSkyB (BSkyB is a 33% owner of Sky News Australia) a chance to further integrate its Australian news offerings and promote these offerings on a free-to-air platform.

The launch of ABC NEWS 24 is here but it will be Sky News Australia’s reaction as how it will remain ‘Australia’s Election Channel’ and most prominent 24 hour news network that will be most interesting.

Will you be watching ABC NEWS 24?

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