Newspaper reports in recent days have indicated that there could be moves, again, to merge our two national broadcasters, ABC and SBS.
And, of course, ABC boss Mark Scott thinks it’s not such a bad idea:
“We think there are opportunities for efficiencies to be made whilst ensuring the independence and integrity of two great public broadcasters.”
Not quite sure that SBS would have the same enthusiasm.
SBS has had to fight two attempts already to merge it with the much-larger ABC. The first, prompted by Labor prime minister Bob Hawke in the mid-1980s, saw a great level of community protest from multicultural groups that saw the merger as a threat to SBS’ status as ‘their’ broadcaster, as SBS would inevitably vanish in the process and be replaced with an ABC2-type channel, something that would have suited ABC to the ground as a step towards emulating the grand lady of public broadcasting, BBC.
In 2000, controversial ABC chief Jonathan Shier also flagged the idea of merging the two broadcasters. The thought of ABC getting its hands on SBS funding, and access to SBS’ allocation of digital television spectrum to add to its own, was obviously too good for Shier to ignore. Though while the 1986-87 merger proposal incurred the wrath of SBS supporters, in 2000 the thought of ABC merging with the semi-commercially-funded SBS saw the ABC purists dreading advertising finding its way to the national broadcaster. But from memory, Shier’s 2000 campaign to bring SBS and ABC together did not inspire as much passionate debate as in 1986-7, but without the idea being driven by the Government perhaps it was never going to reach fruition anyway, and was probably more a case of Mr Shier just being controversial to grab a headline.
Of course, ABC’s recent enthusiasm for ‘partnering’ with SBS is in stark contrast to the late-1970s, when the Fraser government invited the then Australian Broadcasting Commission to take on the responsibility of the fledgling multicultural broadcasting service which at that point consisted only of two radio stations – 2EA Sydney and 3EA Melbourne. But ABC took no interest in taking part, even though its own charter probably implied that perhaps it should.
And on the eve of SBS launching its first television service, Channel 0/28, its chief executive Bruce Gyngell (pictured) recalled that in the early stages of the government establishing a multicultural television service, ABC continued to show a lack of interest in participation:
“If you look at the ABC’s submission to the Senate, they lumped multicultural television along with, and I quote, ‘rural science and other minority interests’.”
Perhaps now with the benefit of history, Mr Scott would like to see ABC and SBS together as one, but thirty years since the proverbial horse has bolted, it might now just amount to wishful thinking.
Pictures: 20/20 Vision, SBS. December 2000