ABC‘s Asia-Pacific television channel, Australia Network, is set to be scrapped after the handing down of the first federal budget of Tony Abbott’s government.
The move to scrap the satellite service, which currently broadcasts to 44 countries and to an estimated audience of millions across the Asia-Pacific region, is of no real surprise as government ministers have long identified it as a potential cost saving — despite the service being a key part of the ABC’s charter in promoting Australian interests in foreign markets — and have criticised the ABC’s role in delivering the service.
The government is set to save around $200 million by terminating the ten-year contract only one year after being locked in by the previous government — but will be forced to compensate the ABC around $10 million for terminating the deal.
ABC managing director Mark Scott described the decision to scrap funding for Australia Network as disappointing:
“Countries around the world are expanding their international broadcasting services as key instruments of public diplomacy. The ABC had negotiated a detailed strategy with DFAT to develop relationships with major broadcasters in the region and to target locals likely to trade, study in or travel to Australia. This partnership had resulted in expanded audiences in key markets and was on track to deliver all agreed targets.
“This decision runs counter to the approach adopted by the vast majority of G-20 countries who are putting media at the centre of public diplomacy strategies to engage citizens in other countries.
“It sends a strange message to the region that the government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia.
“The agreed strategy with DFAT based on broadcasting, online partnerships and social media was proving successful. This decision cannot be justified in terms of performance against agreed priorities.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, whose portfolio includes administration of the Australia Network contract through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was recently reported as saying that Australia’s interests would better be promoted overseas by use of social media.
The Australia Network was launched by ABC as Australia Television International (ATVI) in February 1993. Budget cuts handed down by the John Howard government in the late 1990s saw ATVI contracted out to the Seven Network, before it came back under the ABC’s control in 2002. The most recent tender to operate the service became a fierce battle between ABC and Sky News Australia — with the ABC controversially awarded the contract after then Prime Minister Julia Gillard terminated the tender process after it had been compromised by confidential details being leaked.
The network provides a range of Australian programming and sports coverage — from commercial networks as well as ABC and SBS — to the Asia-Pacific market. Some of the programs featured include Redfern Now, Packed To The Rafters, ABC News Breakfast, 7.30, Bananas In Pyjamas, Behind The News, Foreign Correspondent, Dateline, Offspring, Play School, Who Do You Think You Are?, Australian Story and The Wiggles. Sports coverage includes AFL and the Melbourne Cup.
The network has also just recently forged a strategic entry into the restricted Chinese market.
Apart from the Australia Network decision, both ABC and SBS have also been served budget cuts — with both broadcasters set to lose around 1 per cent of annual funding over four years, amounting to around $43.5 million.
Both broadcasters are also subject to an efficiency review to identify further savings. Mr Scott said it was inevitable that the ABC will be forced to cut jobs and services but is too early to tell what exactly will be impacted.