Mark Scott has used his final major speech as ABC managing director to ramp up the case for the ABC to merge with SBS, saying it would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year and stop the broadcasters "tripping over each other".
Mr Scott, who departs the ABC in May, revealed he and former SBS managing director Shaun Brown had secretly agreed there should be a "friendly merger" between the two broadcasters and were prepared to make the case to government. Under one scenario discussed, Mr Scott would have been managing director of the merged organisation while the then chairman of SBS, Joseph Skrzynski, would have been the chair.
Plea to merge ABC and SBS
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Plea to merge ABC and SBS
The ABC and SBS can save tens of millions of tax payer dollars a year if they merge, according to outgoing ABC boss Mark Scott. Courtesy ABC.
But the idea was rejected by the SBS board and Mr Brown retired in 2011.
Mr Scott said it was time for a "grown up conversation" about how the two broadcasters could be combined.
"By coming together, SBS and the ABC could still offer distinct brands under distinct charters," he told the National Press Club on Wednesday. "But it could be done without an entire separate back office, stand-alone buildings, studios and technology, IT, legal, finance, HR and corporate divisions - or a separate board.
"We could spend more of the funding serving audiences."
Mr Scott said a merger would save an estimated $40 million, based on previous costings.
As reported by Fairfax Media, Mr Scott said sharing broadcasting spectrum - and moving some television channels online - would also free up funds for the ABC and SBS to spend on digital.
Expanding on comments to Senate estimates hearings earlier this month, Mr Scott said SBS had become less distinctive from the ABC since its creation 40 years ago.
"Increasingly, the ABC and SBS have tripped over each other, as each strives to meet audience and programming needs best, to maximise audience engagement," he said.
"At times we've even bid against each other for programs and content - and there have been scheduling frustrations as well."
Fairfax Media understands the current SBS management has been surprised and unimpressed by Mr Scott's recent advocacy of a merger.
At times we've even bid against each other for programs and content - and there have been scheduling frustrations as well
At an event in Parliament House on Tuesday night, SBS managing director Michael Ebeid said SBS was already lean and that it is important to maintain a broadcaster with the "specific purpose to tell the stories of multicultural Australia".
Mr Scott also warned that the Turnbull government would effectively be cutting the ABC's news budget by 10 per cent if it does not renew a $20 million a year funding allocation made by the previous Labor government.
The ABC used the money to fund extra reporters in regional and suburban areas and create a new national reporting team that undertakes investigative reporting. It is now negotiating its three-year funding deal with the government, to be announced in the May budget.
"That news funding represents 10 per cent of the ABC's news budget and to cut it now will mean significant cuts to jobs and programming.
"If it was not renewed, it would represent the third substantial cut to the ABC's budget since the Coalition government was elected on a platform not to cut the budget."
Labor communications spokesman Jason Clare said on Tuesday up to 100 ABC journalists, including in regional Australia, could lose their jobs if the funding is not renewed.
But he said he did not think the ABC and SBS should merge.
"I think the ABC and SBS can be more efficient and I've heard arguments that say that you could potentially find savings by more shared services, more back-office shared services," he said.
"But particularly with an organisation like SBS that has a very special mandate to tell the stories of multicultural Australia and explain the different parts of Australia to all of us, I think it's very important that we protect its role."