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Shape-shifting: the ABC has just offered us a glimpse of its future

The ABC has just shape-shifted in a major way, though you could be forgiven for not noticing.

The national broadcaster this week unveiled its "digital arts gateway". According to ABC managing director Mark Scott, the new site — or, more accurately, site within a site — "will be a central stop for anyone who's interested in what's happening in the arts across Australia".

The ABC has just entered a new phase in which its master role is of web publisher, broadcaster. 

Buried in the fine print of the announcement, however, was the news that while massively expanding its online arts coverage, the ABC was also scaling back its flagship TV arts program, Sunday Arts, as I have reported previously. The ABC has now confirmed that the 60-minute magazine-style show will be replaced next year by a 30-minute program called Art Nation. The precise format of the new show has yet to be decided, but according to the ABC, "a key component of the program is showcasing the work that has premiered on the Arts Gateway and [been] sent in from artists from around the country".

So far, so special interest, you may think. But look closely at all this and you may begin to see the outline of a bigger picture: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has just entered a new phase in which its master role is of web publisher/broadcaster, with TV, radio and print divisions taking on the status of feeder channels.

When I asked Mark Scott if this was a fair assessment of the relationship earlier this week, he replied: "Yes, absolutely right."

"For a long time we've been exasperated that we produce so much great arts content — through Classic FM, Triple J, Radio National, all the interviews on local radio stations, also all that we do on TV — but online has been difficult to find, it's been buried away in numerous locations. And we want to make it easy for our audiences to find it."

Scott made the "easy for our audiences to find" point repeatedly. And it's certainly true that the new gateway, or portal, brings together an enormous range of material in one place. There's news, reviews, footage from various programs, and some new content, including material uploaded by practicing artists (sometimes in collaboration with TV crews, in what Scott calls a "pro-am partnership"), and even some examples of that blight of the modern age, the blog. (Oh, hang on a sec.) But above all, the gateway is a content-aggregator with a bit of reverse publishing thrown in (among the material Art Nation will carry is material first created for the web).

And the arts is just the first specialist area in which this model is going to be rolled out.

"A number [of others] will be rolled out in coming months," Scott told me. "We've developed the tools that basically allow us to tag and identify and bring together content areas that are of common interest to our audience. For example, we think audiences in Perth would be interested in specialist science and religious content that gets aired in discussion on Jon Faine's radio program [in Melbourne]. So, yeah, there'll be more announcements in the months to come."

But there are concerns in some quarters that the increasing concentration on online will come at the expense of traditional media, including television, and that the audience that seeks ABC content on radio and TV is not necessarily as web-savvy as Mark Scott's ideal content consumer. (Scott conceded that the arts gateway is likely to attract a younger audience than, say, the Sunday Arts program did.)

Kim Dalton, ABC director of television, appeared almost to concede the battle in a press release issued earlier this week. "As more and more Australians rely on the internet for news and entertainment, ABC TV is responding by consolidating our arts presence in those spaces."

But back to Mark Scott. The internet, he appears to believe, is the medium of choice for the people the ABC is targeting. "We have to be able to ... reach audiences at a time they want and on a device they want," he said. "Yes, we do need to invest in online, whilst still doing television and radio.

"Of course, everybody wants us to do everything but you've got to make some choices."

Scott argues that there's still plenty of arts content on ABC TV, and that's undoubtedly true. But that's not what I'm driving at here. The key point I'm trying to make is that the ABC — which started its life as a consortium of private radio interests in 1929, was nationalised in 1932, entered the TV game in 1956 and began dabbling in the internet in 1995 — appears just to have taken a major step towards its future form. A form in which its master medium is the web.

Like it or not — and the ABC's privately funded competitors in the media sphere are no doubt in the latter camp — we'd all better get used to it.