SPA and MEAA raise concerns over Mark Scott’s ABC-SBS merger proposal

24 February, 2016 by Brian Karlovsky

Australian screen sector industry bodies have raised concerns over a "friendly merger" between Australia's two public broadcasters following Mark Scott's last National Press Club address as ABC boss.

In his address Scott told the Press Club the conversation needed to be revisited and that a friendly merger could preserve each broadcasters identity while delivering major savings.


"As commercial TV networks push for deregulation and fewer licensing requirements in the face of steep competition, it’s reasonable to expect they shift investment from quality drama, just as they have from serious documentaries and nearly all narrative comedy and satire… People expect the public broadcaster to step in, to pick up the slack," Scott said.

Scott made these comments in the context of funding cuts to the ABC, calling on Government to at least maintain current funding levels. 

Screeen Producers Australia chief executive, Matt Deaner, said any conversation about the merger of our public broadcasters must factor in both the distinct identities and individual charters of ABC and SBS as well as the diversity that is gained by the public and commercial sector investing in the production of Australian content. 

"There remains no doubt about the role for commercial free-to-air television to screen high quality adult and children’s drama and documentaries alongside those investments by ABC and SBS," he said.  

"Furthermore, Screen Producers Australia would be very concerned if one of the buyers of content was removed from what is already a small market, this would diminish commissioning opportunities by concentrating programming decisions into fewer and fewer hands. 

"It would heighten existing calls for greater transparency in ABC’s commissioning budgets and would further reduce competitive tension for smaller producers when negotiating commercial terms with digital and distribution rights, which are already a vexed issue," concluded Mr Deaner.

"Any moves to merge Australia’s national broadcasters with the purpose of finding savings or “efficiencies” must be treated with extreme caution, warns the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the union representing news and editorial employees at ABC and SBS."

MEAA chief executive officer Paul Murphy said discussion of an ABC-SBS merger was a distraction from serious issues of underfunding faced by both public broadcasters.

He said MEAA was very skeptical that an effective argument could be mounted to bring the two institutions together.

“Merger efforts tend to have more to do with ‘saving the silverware’ than improving operations and content offerings,” he said.

“The ABC and SBS are already doing more with less.

“In real terms the ABC receives about $200 million less each year from the government than it did a quarter of a century ago, yet it is producing more content through more channels and platforms than ever before. This is a tribute to the dedication and passion of ABC journalists, presenters, technical staff and others.

“As Mark Scott pointed out today, more than $350 million has been stripped from the ABC by the current government, including $254 million of operational funding.

“The rationale for a merger seems to be only about making savings. But this simply papers over the real issue that public broadcasting in this country is underfunded for the digital age.

“This must be addressed as a matter of priority in the triennial funding round to be announced in this year’s budget. Discussions about transmission costs and platform sharing are good and worthwhile but any savings won’t address the underlying funding issue.

“And what happens when the modest savings from a merger are absorbed? Furthermore, it would be extremely naïve to believe that savings could be reinvested into programming and content rather than taken by the government of the day.”

Murphy said any financial benefits from a merger would need to be balanced against the likely negative impact on the audiences of the ABC and SBS. 

He said staff at the ABC and SBS were still going through a painful period of cost-cutting, programming changes and redundancies, and what was needed was funding stability, not more uncertainty.