Dr Rhonda Jolly
This Budget has delivered substantial funding for the national broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). The ABC will receive base funding of $2.5 billion over three years from 2013–14. SBS base funding will be $568.7 million over the same three year period.
Additional funding has been provided to assist in maintaining and improving online services—$30.0 million over three years for the ABC and $20.0 million for SBS. The ABC has also benefitted from additional funding to enhance its news delivery services ($69.4 million over four years) and SBS from funding to assist it to meet the cost of supporting the production of, and acquiring, local content ($10.0 million over five years). Both broadcasters will be assisted to increase the terrestrial coverage of digital television to an extra 39 areas in regional Australia and to convert and take over the management of a number of self-help television transmission services. The funding package also includes a $90.0 million loan to assist the ABC to construct a new facility which will house ABC Melbourne’s radio, television and online operations.
The level of funding for the national broadcasters was welcomed by the ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott and SBS’s Michael Ebeid, both of whom noted that it would assist the broadcasters to fulfil the obligations of their charters—for the ABC to inform, educate and entertain Australians and SBS to deliver services which celebrate Australia’s multicultural environment—in the digital environment. There has been little other mention of the additional funding to the public broadcasters in Budget analysis, although one commentator, Andrew Bolt, claimed in relation to ABC funding that it represented a ‘bribe’ to remind the broadcaster who its friends were.
One commentary also suggested that the funding boost was not as good as it appeared. ABC television and radio would actually face ‘funding pain’ under projections in the Budget papers—$10 million for television in 2016–17 and $5 million for radio for the same year. Treasury officials argued in response that the apparent anomaly is because the broadcaster is funded on a triennial basis and this means that future budget years are recoded in financial statements as a base figure.
Mark Scott also referred to the base funding equation, arguing that it could be problematic in the future as it is below inflation.  In addition, Scott noted that new funding is ‘tied to specific areas’. He warned against too much celebration, as the ABC budget will continue to be ‘tight’ and the broadcaster will still be required to save money. This will mean ‘standing still in many areas’; in other words Scott implied that there may be areas in which the ABC will not have the money to embrace new technologies or continue services.
According to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, however, the funding boost signifies clearly that the Government will support the national broadcasters into the future; under its auspices there will be no fund cutting or moves toward privatisation. This remark appears to be partly in response to comments from Opposition spokesperson on communications, Malcolm Turnbull, who prior to the Budget, noted that while he was a passionate supporter of public broadcasters, he could not guarantee that they would not be subject to cuts if the Coalition was elected to government.
While not in direct response to these comments, Mark Scott’s direction to ABC staff following the Budget announcements addresses a fundamental issue in relation to future funding for the public broadcasters from any government—they must ‘demonstrate strong returns to audiences’, in order to justify funding for news and digital media beyond 2015–16, the last year of this triennial funding package.
The Budget provides $5.4 million over five years ‘to assist the production and transmission of community radio’ as part of the Creative Australia initiative. This includes $2.7 million over four years to help communities in regional and remote Australia to upgrade satellite reception equipment to enable them to access more radio services on the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service. There is also $2.7 million to continue operation of the Australian Music Radio Airplay Project (AMRAP). AMRAP has been funded since 1998 to promote contemporary Australian music through the community broadcasting sector. Community broadcasters nationally play an average of 37 per cent Australian music of all genres and make a significant contribution to supporting Australian music, arts and media diversity.
This funding does not mean that the community radio sector is happy with budget outcomes. The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia has expressed its disappointment that a ‘mere $1.4 million’ needed for the ‘survival’ of digital community radio services was not included in the Budget. The Government previously provided funding to the community sector to enable it to plan, design, implement and operate infrastructure for digital radio. The sector believes that the funding delivered in 2012 to continue to maintain stations now established as a result of that funding is insufficient. It has expressed ongoing concern since its funding expectations were unmet in the 2012 Budget and has argued that a number of digital stations would be forced to reduce services substantially or to close unless additional funding in this Budget was forthcoming.
Moreover, it believes that it is a government responsibility to support community radio transition to digital services. It considers there are a number of reasons for this including the popularity of the services—one quarter of radio audiences listen to community radio. A further reason is that these services are provided on a not-for-profit basis and crucially, the existence of radio community radio stations help to deliver media diversity.
The online news source Crikey reports, however, that the Government is not sympathetic to community radio’s argument for digital funding. It considers that the sector should be able to find funding from other sources to make up the digital shortfall. There is some justification in the Government adopting this approach given that the majority of funding for community radio is derived from sponsorship. On the other hand, as the Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam points out, $1.4 million is a relatively small amount of money to ensure that all community broadcasters remain on the air. Community radio has not given up on gaining further funding to secure its digital future however, and is currently seeking further discussion with the Minister.
. S Conroy, Gillard Government boosts support, op. cit.
. Information gathered from various pages on the CBAA website.
. The most recently available Community Broadcasting Database survey of community radio stations (for the 2009-10 financial year) estimated that Australian Government funding to permanently licensed community radio stations was 8.5 per cent of total revenue. Total grant income from all government formed 25 per cent of total revenue. By comparison, local sponsorship and subscriptions and donations provided 45.6 per cent of revenue, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia submission to the 2010–11 Budget, not available online.
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