The ABC is under threat. Not for the first time, the Australian government feels that it is getting more than its fair share of criticism from the publicly funded national broadcaster. It has the option of cutting ABC funding in the upcoming May budget.
Former ABC Chairman and Managing Director David Hill put it well in his article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
My fear is that cutting ABC funding further will damage not only the ABC’s ability to be an effective independent news and current affairs service, but also the contribution it makes to Australian children’s programs, education, the arts, classical and alternative music, science, comedy, rural affairs and a host of other areas which are poorly served by commercial media.
I declare an interest here. The ABC took a big punt when it gave me my first ever job.
In 1974 ‘Auntie’ employed me as a radio producer and presenter of Young World, the show that replaced the long-running, very popular, but by then slightly twee The Children’s Hour. I had no radio experience, so they trained me as I worked.
It was a risk for them, but it paid off. Young World was never going to be a huge hit on the less-than-mainstream Radio National, but we doubled the ratings during the year. Of course the ABC isn’t supposed to worry about ratings, so I can say that despite my haphazard approach, we made some pretty inventive, imaginative and entertaining programs. I like to think we broke some new ground in radio, and it was good to know that listeners enjoyed the show too.
Then in 1991 I was invited to a meeting at the ABC to discuss an idea for a new TV show for pre-schoolers. There were to be two bananas and three teddies. There was a theme song by Carey Blyton. The bananas would wear pyjamas (because that nearly rhymes), come down the stairs and chase the teddy bears (because that really does rhyme). That was it. The whole idea. I’d hardly ever written for TV before, but this didn’t sound good to me. It was going ahead anyway.
In those heady days, ABC Children’s had a big enough budget to fund the program outright. There was no need to negotiate with a commercial producer or lock in an international distribution deal. They just did it.
My fellow writer Simon Hopkinson and I were sent off to scribble some five-minute pilot episodes. We did our best and somehow it struck a chord. The Bananas in Pyjamas went viral, earned millions of dollars in export sales and is still running after 23 years (albeit now in an animated version with which I had little involvement). For those who may have missed them, the heroes B1 and B2 are on the billboard above. And on YouTube.
Bananas in Pyjamas was a weird, quirky little idea…and risky. Had it needed financial approval from a committee of investing co-producers from, say, the USA, Singapore and Germany, I can well imagine that someone would have said, ‘Do they have to be bananas? Puppy dogs would cuter. Or fairies – kids love fairies.’ Then someone else would say, ‘They have to have real names, not ‘B1 and B2’ – how about ‘Betty Banana and Bob Banana’? That sounds catchy.’
My point is that the ABC in every department should and does go where commercial networks fear to tread. It has to take risks, producing inventive children’s shows, televising less popular sports (i.e. those played by women), giving opportunities to unknown comedians and musicians.
Without adequate funding it will be reduced to programming endless reruns of QI, Grand Designs and New Tricks. I like these shows as much as anyone, but I also want to see Redfern Now, Media Watch, Four Corners, Australian Story, Gruen Planet, Exhumed…shows quite unlike anything available anywhere else.
Or is that the government’s cunning plan – squeeze the ABC until they can point to its slipping standards and then abolish it altogether?