Will Radio Australia suffer now that Australia Network has been cut? | radioinfo

Will Radio Australia suffer now that Australia Network has been cut?

Wednesday 14 May, 2014

Steve Ahern explores the implications and options.
 

Now that the Australia Network contract has been cancelled, what are the options for the ABC’s international operations?

Implications for Radio Australia

As part of the changes made to implement the Australia Network contract in 2012, the corporation announced that Radio Australia would “work more closely” with Australia Network and the International Division.
 
If Radio Australia budgets had been included in the Australian Network contract, then this week's cancellation would have been very damaging for RA, but fortunately most of RA’s direct funding still comes from the ABC’s Radio portfolio and it will not be directly affected by the cancellation of the Australia TV contract.
 
But there may be knock on effects from the cut. One big question is whether Radio Australia’s budget will face pressure to fund some Australian Network activities that might otherwise have been scrapped in light of cancellation of the DFAT contract.

International correspondents

When Australia Network was set up, part of its $20 million per year funding was allocated to increase the number of foreign correspondents in the network’s target region, Asia.
 
Those additional reporters funded by the international contract, stationed in bureaux such as China, will presumably be cut back to pre-contract levels. This will reduce the number of reporters in some of the ABC’s main Asian offices.
 
ABC International Division

The International Division aims to promote the ABC's values of integrity, respect, collegiality and innovation by building regional partnerships and facilitating cross-cultural communication between developed and emerging markets in Asia and the Pacific.
 
It has other functions besides Australia Network, but the now defunct ten year contract did mean that this division assumed more significance, because of its management of the DFAT funded tv channel.
 
International has a website which aggregates content from the ABC’s international and domestic services and presents it on the web under the Australia Plus (A+) brand. 
 
The division also deals with international relations and international aid programs. With cuts also being made in foreign aid, there may be changes in this part of the division as well.
 
Other international broadcasters

So what of the claim, made by ABC Friends, that “other governments are vying for the influence that broadcasting affords in the Asia Pacific region. They appreciate its importance to building positive relations and trade with their country.”
 
It is true.
 
I travel extensively in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and it is evident that international broadcasters, both radio and television, are expanding their reach, with the aim of advancing their national viewpoints across international borders.
 
In the past year, Voice of America has secured radio broadcasting licences and launched new stations in several East African states, such as South Sudan. In addition, websites and specially produced tv programs are disseminated directly or by partner media across the region.
 
Press TV, gives Iran an international presence, pushing out its views via satellite and terrestrial outlets across the world from the IRIB broadcast headquarters in Tehran. Press TV is aggressive in advertising its channels in locations as diverse as London Tube Stations to Bazaars and marketplaces throughout Africa and Asia.
 
Russia Today is Russia’s arm of international media diplomacy, broadcasting via satellite and terrestrial outlets across Asia, the Middle East and some parts of Europe. It has steadily expanded its international reach over the past few years. With the current political crisis in the Ukraine, RT is very vocal in articulating the Kremlin’s view of the situation.
 
The success of Al Jezeera, which broadcasts from Qatar, has inspired many other Arab states to expand their own international satellite tv footprints to further their views in the Arabic speaking region and beyond.
 
New delivery options

Lindley Marshall and Mark Scott were right in saying that the cancellation of the contract was not due to any failure to achieve the objectives. Everything promised in the contract for the first year was achieved. Mark Scott said: “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.”
 
If the axing of Australia Network is, as ABC Friends claim,the first stage of a reward for Murdoch-owned media outlets having campaigned for the Coalition in the last election,” then we may see a new contract awarded to a rival commercial network. If so, it will be clear that the move was ideologically motivated, not budget driven.
 
But if no further contract is awarded, it will still leave the ABC to grapple with how to fulfil its legislative objective to deliver international programming, whether or not it is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This may prompt a review of technological methods.
 
If you could not use satellites and television sets to get programming to viewers in other countries, how would you do it?
 
The answer of course, is to develop a new strategy, which perhaps could deliver individual programs, but not necessarily a continuous channel stream, to viewers. This could be done on any number of mobile devices, utilising podcast or catch up technology that is currently already used in some of the ABC’s other distribution strategies.  Online programming direct to viewers however, throws up many rights issues, and is one of the key reasons why iView is currently geo-blocked in many countries outside Australia.
 
Radio Australia has successfully expanded its online presence internationally using programs where the ABC owns the rights. A similar strategy for the delivery of specific tv programs could be considered, but would this dilute the remaining $15 million per year it has left for other international activities after the cut to the DFAT contract.
 
There are many new ways of distributing tv programs around the world without using satellites.
 
A new commercial content sales and exchange website has just been launched by an international consortium which includes Channel 7 Australia, called Media Beach.  For sharing news programs, the ABU’s Asia Vision service is also very effective. The ABC already has program sales deals in place with international partners which they may choose to leverage further to keep some kind of international tv presence. Services such as these may help the ABC deliver programs to international broadcast partners, although it would not constitute a full tv channel of the kind that was Australia Television.
 
Even if alternative means of tv program distribution are on the agenda, rights are still an issue. With the ABC in control of its own channel, all the rights issues were centrally managed, but if programs are sold or given to other broadcasters, the tv rights issues suddenly get much more complex.
 
The ABC has been informed by DFAT it has 90 days from yesterday before the contract ends. It will have to move fast to unravel its partnership deals and to decide if it will use some other method to continue to deliver content to international tv partners.
 
More cuts

Beyond the direct cuts to the ABC’s International Division, there will still be additional cuts as a result of the efficiency dividend that has been applied to the corporation’s main budget allocation. These will cause pain in the Radio Division and right across the national broadcaster.
 
 
Head of ABC International, Lindley Marshall was not available for comment. Mark Scott has spoken about the ABC cuts today - see our other story.
 
 
Steve Ahern is founding editor and co-owner of radioinfo and the proprietor of an international broadcast training and consultancy company called AMT Pty Ltd. To serve clients in Asia, Africa and the Middle East he travels extensively in Afghanistan, Arabic states, North Africa, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Pacific.
 

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