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The free-to-air television that might have been

By Patricia Edgar
Posted Friday, 14 December 2012

I would be foolish to attempt to say with certainty what free-to-air television will look like five to ten years from now but it is clearly struggling to maintain its dominance in the media marketplace. There are enormous challenges facing broadcasting and the economic model that has underpinned the industry is outdated. Yet, as with climate change science, denial and inertia are still pervasive within the commercial industry in Australia as well as the ABC.

These symptoms have been endemic in Australian broadcasting from the time television began in 1956, for life has been easy and governments have been malleable, fearing the networks' power and critique and their impact on the electorate. Commercial television has been a money making machine and licencees have been allowed to get away with the spoils. They have had to be forced by regulation to spend money on Australian content and children's programs. But the rules of the game have changed.

Technology has reshaped the media landscape dramatically. Google and DVDs appeared at the end of the 90s, Facebook 2003, YouTube 2005 and Twitter 2006. The game industry has outstripped revenue from cinema with many players coming from television's prime audience. But content providers remain very slow to respond to the challenges and TV managers remain averse to taking risks and providing the investment innovation requires, as their heads will roll if they fail.

The television industry has seen the tsunami coming but they seem at a loss to find an appropriate and viable response. Historically they have cried 'wolf' whenever the public has made demands. With their cries of poverty they have undermined and modified Australian quotas, delayed the introduction of digital television, won concessions on advertising regulations and pleaded for cuts to their licence fees. The latest concession by government is to halve fees to ease the financial difficulties all three commercial networks are experiencing. Even so, as the recent upheavals in print journalism demonstrate, no time should be lost in identifying solutions to find the appropriate place for free-to-air in the media marketplace as the digital revolution proceeds. There are already many unhappy shareholders.

It need not be this way. Television is after all simply a delivery system, one with a wide reach which has given it a natural advantage. But not only has the industry failed to adapt to the changes in the technology on which the delivery system is based, it has struggled with content innovation, failing to satisfy the demonstrated needs and interests of its audience while it clings to old habits and structures. If free-to-air fails it will be due to a failure of imagination and creativity for it is content that attracts the viewers who keep the industry afloat.

The old model of television broadcasting - selling eyeballs to advertisers - has long been irrelevant. The ability to record and view later began with the introduction of the VCR to living rooms in the late 70's. That technology was a clear threat to the broadcasting business model, but it took until December 2009, for the ratings collection body, OzTAM, to begin tracking 'time-shift' audiences. Viewer demand for flexible schedulinghas been clear for decades.Further evidence was the extent of streaming which followed the introduction of ninemsn and Yahoo7 in 2009 which approached five million online video streams a month, with Ten Network's Masterchef generating nine million streams.

Television has clung to a model that assumes the audience wants a scheduler to construct an evening's program viewing for them, but station loyalty belonged to a bygone age. Stations have tried to get around channel-switching by not sticking to advertised times and allowing a program to go overtime so a viewer will miss the start of the next program they want to see on an opposing channel. These techniques cause frustration and encourage piracy which is rife.

The technique of blurring advertising with programs, even using program actors in ads to confuse when you 'fast forward', is intensely annoying. Once upon a time such practices were outlawed by the regulator. Now product placement ads are integral to the program, but these tampering techniques will not save free-to-air TV. More radical and fundamental changes will be required.

The broadcasting regulator in Australia was always 'reluctant' but has become more and more so. When I was appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) in 1975 I was shocked by the complacency I encountered at the board table. The ABCB seemed to see their role as serving the interests of the industry rather than the public. This attitude set me on the path to reform of children's programming which became a 30 year project.

Australians took to television in the fifties so rapidly the grand promises made about serving the Australian community with quality programming were off the agenda, forgotten as program managers travelled to the US and UK cherry-picking the best of overseas programming they could obtain more cheaply than producing their own. When reform of Program Standards and Australian content requirements were mooted in 1975, by the ABCB responding to pressure from a Labor government in Canberra, the industry claimed they couldn't afford Australian drama and children's programming because of the high costs of the introduction of colour technology at that time. The Fraser Government on winning the election in 1975 announced it would abolish the troublesome ACBC, replacing it with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT).

Colour proved to be a bonanza as audience numbers soared, but that did not prevent the commercial industry from challenging in the courts the new children's standards and quotas set by the ABT. The networks lost that battle eventually when the Hawke government introduced new legislation to close loopholes, but they continued to take the path of least resistance, doing the minimum required. That conservative approach over years has meant free-to-air networks have failed to adapt to changing conditions and encourage a culture of creativity. Most telling in this changed environment they have not developed relevant programs for the young including young adults who between them are the greatest consumers of media and the discriminating audience of the future.

The ABC has also dragged its feet. In November 2009 Kim Dalton, Head of ABC Television and Chair of Freeview, said, 'Free-to-air Australia was experiencing an explosion in the number of platforms, business models and technologies that could deliver TV to viewers and they posed significant risks to free-to-air TV and Australian production.' Yet when the ABC moved into digital television with an opportunity to break new ground for an audience heavily engaged with new media, they chose expediency over innovation, establishing a children's channel on a model that was more than two decades old.

The first Children's Channel in the UK was set up in 1984. It became digital in 1999. The BBC's two digital children's channels were launched in 2002. A decade later the time was right for a new model. Yet the ABC Managing Director Mark Scott on Nov 18 2010, unashamedly argued to government, 'You've got challenges converting this country to digital television?Let us help you do that? A great way is creating a digital free-to-air children's television channel which will also be of educational benefit to this country, help the independent production sector, and be a renaissance of children's television.'

That avowed willingness to put the ABC at the disposal of government interests rang alarm bells publicly and the rhetoric did not match the reality of course. We got ABC3. The ABC called for projects that were high volume, low cost and derivative of adult series, not creative, educational or capable of leading a renaissance. The approach typified the limited thinking, opportunism and unwillingness to innovate that has dogged broadcasting in Australia. Networks continue to look for solutions that have been found elsewhere in the world, but the rest of the world is now short on solutions as well, and cable and subscription television have become very competitive.

In order to draw audiences to their outlets, and price free-to-air out of the market some big media players are pumping huge investment into drama and sports in particular. Home Box Office have demonstrated what a television renaissance really looks like with outstanding writer-driven multiple narrative series like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, West Wing, The Wire, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, Homeland. People want these programs and will pay for them, buy box sets or pirate them to get hold of them when they are first released. In Australia,in order to stem piracy Home Box Office series are now being shown on Foxtel within hours of going to air in the US. 'Express from the US' is the campaign catch cry and it's a good move. Some of these programs are finding their way to Australian free-to air, and the ABC and commercial networks are reminded how viewers crave excellent drama like Underbelly, Redfern, or The Slap but the competition from alternative sources of quality programming is now hurting.

Sports is another classic example of fierce competition with payments for rights so high it is doubtful whether return on investment can sustain the strategy. The Olympics and the AFL Football are cases in point. Rights are so costly sharing arrangements are being negotiated. And there's the platform and audience functionality issue as audiences demand more functionality, interactivity and choice. Here is where Sport has overtaken Children's by leaps and bounds, leaving the children's industry well in its wake.

The challenge for kids programming is one of design and architecture rather than technical functionality. The technologies for a new service that could be a fully integrated multimedia service are already widely available around the world. Complex websites that offer high levels of interactivity are commonplace and many have video playing and audio listening capability. Most broadcasters have an on-demand listening and viewing facility now. Pod casts, social networking and games are widely available online and a wide range of media creation and editing tools is available free.

For children a broadcaster should design and build a robust, flexible, multipurpose platform that lets kids do what they want in the ways they want, when they want, including viewing their favourite programs on demand. At the moment most services are single purpose and assume a user will watch a program and then when they've finished that perhaps play a game which may relate to the program theme, then chat with a friend and so on. In today's world kids are very comfortable doing several things at the same time, keeping a number of windows open on their desktops so they can flip between them.

From a production point of view the challenge is to engage the right teams of people to conceptualise, design and run such a service. When groups from different cultures come together they tend to battle for power. If television people dominate such a new service the evidence so far suggests they will build an online TV delivery mechanism with a bit of interactivity on the side. If online people dominate they'll probably go for technical functionality over narrative and usefulness. . These are quite significant challenges but this is what the audience now wants. But if people who run the new service are in it for the money and simply want to exploit kids as a market then we needn't bother. And that takes us to the role children themselves might play in the design of a new service.

The phenomenon of YouTube, reputedly created (2005) by two friends who were having difficulty sharing a homemade video, demonstrates in startling terms how much material is 'out there' and how much people , particularly young people are interested in engaging in small production. A year after start-up, 65,000 videos were being uploaded every day and the site was receiving 100 million video views per day. Google saw the potential and that year bought YouTube for US$1.65 billion. Kids love YouTube. School yard word of mouth and texting mean they can promote their own little films and share very funny experiences widely with their friends. Trawling YouTube is a lot more fun than watching the umpteenth repeat of children's channel programs. This is not to say children, like adults, don't still respond well to first class narratives in live action and animation but such programs are all too rare as networks try to fill the hours on the voracious television beast with repeat programs.

The model for adults will not be very different from that described for children as time goes on, for ten years from now the young people clamoring for these services today will be the prime time audience of tomorrow. They will be getting their news from a variety of sources and although news programs are still the ratings winners for the networks they cannot remain the same with a 24/7 news cycle and online news services, not to mention citizen journalists on social media. Networks are searching for the next reality TV coup or the fashion that will follow the flood of cooking shows to save their bacon. These programs represent the fine weather before the next violent storm that leads managers to believe it will all be okay. Viewers will still watch: perhaps.

I think imagination, enterprise and the brains of some very smart people are required. This is a most important issue for our times and our way of life. If free-to-air cannot afford to provide the services required maybe competitors will have to partner up. Maybe free-to-air will become one element in a wider offer - a loss leader ? with content providers generating their profits downstream along the chain. This is happening to a degree with some drama production. In 1994, despite my best lobbying efforts at the time, the Film Finance Corporation allowed pre-sales of a series to both a commercial network, which paid a reduced price for a first run to meet quota requirements, and to the ABC which bought subsequent runs. This also happens with cinema films where, although rights can be purchased prior to production, subsequent television screenings, cable and DVD sales are deferred until box office revenue is exhausted. This orderly structure doesn't work when copies of a film are pirated and placed on the internet within hours of release.

It's all about reach and share still, because they're the metrics the industry is addicted to and TV is still the most effective medium to deliver both ?although struggling massively and attempting to second guess audiences. Public broadcasting can only prop up free-to-air so long as Governments are willing to provide funds and this is under threat around the world. Even the iconic BBC is having problems and worrying about the next decision on its license fee in 2016. During his election campaign Governor Mitt Romney made clear he would cut funding to public broadcasting (PBS) in the US. In Australia a merger of ABC and SBS has been canvassed and Liberal Governments in the past have generally been less sympathetic to public broadcasting. Tony Abbott and his Treasurer are heralding budget cuts.

Ironically one of the most productive partnerships in this challenging context could be between education and television. Education has always taken a hiding from free-to-air television management who feared such a label would turn an audience off. The ABC abandoned its educational children's television department, school's programs were heavily reduced and children's producers generally eschewed 'education' to isolate their entertainment programs so no child would think they were an extension of school. Now with convergence, search and interactivity, education and entertainment have come together and kids have no issues moving easily between the two domains on the same technology. As a result teaching and learning are being transformed with kids enjoying taking the initiative in their learning. Universities are also undergoing cultural change as they wrestle with the implications of online learning. Hundreds of thousands of people are downloading lectures and materials to study voluntarily even when a course is not credited towards a degree. There are opportunities here.

A child born today in Australia will likely live to be one hundred years old and lifelong learning must become a social objective. There is massive potential for television to serve that need. Brian Cox, the famous physicist/presenter got huge audiences in the UK with his series The Wonders of the Solar System, when the BBC scheduled it in prime time. He is credited with changing the perception of maths and science subjects in schools with entries in A Levels up forty percent over five years. It's been dubbed 'the Brian Cox effect'. Imaginative educational television can achieve what governments and educators fail to achieve on their own.

We are now well informed about the importance of learning in the early years. There should be a partnership between government, pre-schools, schools and the media to develop an early childhood program designed around the goals of the Early Childhood National Curriculum Framework which would be the core of a community based early childhood project. Children come to media willingly yet we do not think to use technologies to develop and teach children; we use them to market to them.

The solutions to television's predicament may well lie in its origins. When the Government introduced television to Australia, when licences were granted and promises made, we set out down the roles and the obligations of broadcasting. The medium was intended to inform and entertain and benefit society. In a world that might have been, those administering broadcasting should have been held to account to follow the promises made, rather than pursuing short term interests and the bottom line. For broadcasting is not just another business. It is an integral component in our education and democratic political system. But a visionary idea does not play out in a world where marketers, like election campaign managers, narrow their audiences into demographics and special interest groups. So doing, they lead us into intellectual cul-de-sacs and inevitably they will lead the industry into economic oblivion.

Patricia Edgar is an author, television producer and educator. She was the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation.