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Environment and Communications References Committee
Australian Broadcasting Corporation's commitment to reflecting and representing regional diversity
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Environment and Communications References Committee
Singh, Sen Lisa
Milne, Sen Christine
Bilyk, Sen Catryna
Cameron, Sen Doug
Brown, Sen Carol
Ruston, Sen Anne
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Environment and Communications References Committee
(Senate-Friday, 1 February 2013)
CHAIR (Senator Birmingham)
Senator CAROL BROWN
- Senator BILYK
Content WindowEnvironment and Communications References Committee - 01/02/2013 - Australian Broadcasting Corporation's commitment to reflecting and representing regional diversity
BINNING, Ms Abi, General Manager, Wide Angle Tasmania
CONNOLLY, Ms Sharon, Secretary and Public Officer, Wide Angle Tasmania
JOHNSTON, Mr Owen Richard, Production Executive, Screen Producers Association of Australia
CHAIR: Thank you very much for your time today and welcome. The committee has received your submissions as respectively submission 35 from the Screen Producers Association of Australia and submission 36 from Wide Angle Tasmania. Do either entities wish to make any amendments or alterations to their submissions?
Ms Connolly : No.
CHAIR: Do either or both entities wish to make an opening statement?
Ms Connolly : Wide Angle thanks the committee for the opportunity to appear today. As a screen development organisation dedicated to training and supporting local screen practitioners, Wide Angle is very concerned about the withdrawal of resources for ABC TV production in Tasmania and the effect that will have on the state's screen sector, on its production and employment capacities and on the state's screen culture. More broadly, Wide Angle is concerned that the proposal is a further reduction in the ABC's capacity to meet its charter obligation to contribute to a sense of national identity and to reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community.
Tasmania does not yet have a developed screen industry. There is no film school, no Screen Australia, no really sizeable production companies of the kind preferred by ABC decision-makers. There are no network heads, commissioning editors, major distributors and no community television channels here. In fact, with all due respect to my colleague Owen here, there is not even a chapter of SPA and very few SPA members. So the loss of the ABC TV production unit is a very big blow in terms of the local situation. The Tasmanian screen sector will lose employment and training options, expertise and important infrastructure. As other submissions point out, the ABC has been trying to do more with less for a considerable time. One result has been that in-house ABC TV production resources have greatly reduced whilst, in an effort to leverage additional funds largely from other financial and state government sources, outsourcing has increased.
Wide Angle's written submission outlines structural and financial conditions that mean increased outsourcing offers only limited television production opportunities for companies located in regional Australia. Additional strategies are certainly required if the ABC is to offer Tasmania's stories, concerns and perspectives to its TV audiences. Perhaps, for instance, it could consider locating in-house specialist production units outside New South Wales and Victoria. Just as ABC food and lifestyle programs now come largely from South Australia, why could not science or arts or religion or children's production and commissioning be located in Tasmania or Western Australia or Queensland? The ABC might consider relocating some key decision-makers. If programs are, as the ABC submission says, being commissioned from around Australia then why not locate some commissioning editors outside New South Wales and Victoria? Or why not relocate ABC's innovation division to Tasmania where for the next few years it might enjoy the advantages of early NBN connectivity? Other submissions have suggested other solutions, regional quotas et cetera.
Wide Angle believes the impact of increased centralisation of television production whether it be of the in-house, coproduced or pre-purchased variety does threaten the ABC's ability to reflect national identity and diversity. It urges consideration of not only the problem but of ideas that might become solutions. An increase in funding for the ABC in recognition of its additional responsibilities in the digital age is overdue. But without strategies designed to decentralise ABC production and commissioning activities, especially in TV production, more money may not result in an enhanced ABC commitment to programs that truly reflect the cultural diversity of Australia.
Mr Johnston : We would not disagree with anything that Sharon has just said. Our position, I guess, is that we think the ABC's funding has been falling for the last 15 to 20 years. They have had to make decisions, hard decisions, about being able to fulfil their charter and do it in other ways. Yes, they have increased their outsourcing considerably and our organisation represents the overwhelming majority of producers that they outsource programs from. So, in an ideal world we support a mixed model and always have done. We would like the Tasmanian ABC to keep its capacity, but we also understand that in order to do everything that the ABC needs to do with its current funding they have had to make some hard decisions. So I guess our position is that we feel that the ABC is under-funded to fulfil its charter and keep all of its production facilities and staff throughout Australia. In closing, I would say that we see that the commissioning fund that has been proposed by the ABC, if supported by the Tasmanian government, would represent an opportunity to build a small production sector here and address some of the problems Sharon referred to in her opening statement.
Senator SINGH: I have three key questions for Mr Johnston and then I will let other Senators have a go, and if there is any time at the end I will ask questions to wide angle. Mr Johnston, in SPAA's submission you talk, as you just did then, about this independent fund of $500,000 a year or $1.5 million over three years that the ABC has put forward and that, if matched by the Tasmanian, is highly likely to produce more hours than are currently being produced out of Tasmania—that is what you have written in your submission. Have you read Screen Tasmania's submission?
Mr Johnston : No. But perhaps I should qualify that: more hours of specifically Tasmanian material, or material that reflects the region and the diversity of Tasmania. I made that comment in relation to Auction Room and Collectors, which is quite a number of hours but does not reflect Tasmania in any specific way.
Senator SINGH: I was just going to get to that. As you are aware, Screen Tasmania's submission highlights that in fact over that 10-year period—the last 10 years, from 2002 to 2012—it was 241 TV hours that the Tasmanian production unit put out, compared with 30 hours in the independent sector, over a longer time frame of 12 years. You do refer, as you just did then, to the fact that Collectors does not reflect Tasmania in any specific way. I presume you have watched episodes of Collectors?
Mr Johnston : A little bit, yes.
Senator SINGH: So you would be aware of the program they did on MONA?
Mr Johnston : I do not think I saw that.
Senator SINGH: There is also a program they did on the wooden boat festival. There is also a special that was done at Salamanca market, and there was also an hour Christmas special broadcast from the Hobart town hall. So, wouldn't you see those as specifically reflecting Tasmania?
Mr Johnston : I would, yes. You are quite correct there.
Senator SINGH: There was also one that was in Evandale, I think, which I remember watching. In relation to that independent fund, though—the question I was just getting to—and on those figures I just gave you of 241 hours that came out of the ABC TV production unit as opposed to 30 hours in the independent sector, how do you see that $500,000, or even $1 million, is going to produce more than 241 hours over 10 years of independently produced TV?
Mr Johnston : That is a good question. And it would be difficult, I concede.
Senator SINGH: The other part in your submission that I wanted to raise is in relation to some of the programs you have listed, which are successful ABC commissioned programs, that SPAA members produce. You have The Slap, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and so on. Out of all of those programs that you have listed, where in fact are all of the production companies that make those programs based?
Mr Johnston : I would have to take that question on notice and have a look at them, but I would think none of them would be Tasmanian, if that is what you are driving at.
Senator SINGH: I actually did a bit of research, and every single one of them is based in either Melbourne or Sydney. My final question is in relation to your highlighting on page 2 of your submission about the BBC, how the BBC only makes up 50 per cent of programs internally.
Mr Johnston : They are only mandated to.
Senator SINGH: That is correct , as opposed to the ABC's being a higher percentage. But you would be aware of this production guarantee of the BBC—is that 50 per cent produced in-house outside of London?
Mr Johnston : By the BBC, in-house?
Senator SINGH: That is right, by 2016 their production guarantee is that 50 per cent of their internally produced programs be produced outside of London. I guess they are trying to tie their funding in that sense to the regions to ensure that they are actually producing programs in the regions. Do you think a similar kind of model could be looked at for the ABC in Australia? Do you think that is something that would necessarily produce the outcomes of ensuring that the region are covered, especially a region like Tasmania which of course has only had 30 hours of independent commissioned programs in the last 12 years.
Mr Johnston : I do not know. I am uncertain about that 50 per cent of the 50 per cent, whether that has to be produced by the BBC in-house or whether it is independent production companies that can produce that.
Senator SINGH: It is in-house.
Mr Johnston : I was not aware of that. In that case, that would require a lot more funding by the ABC in order to be able to achieve something like that in its regional centres. I assume you include Perth, Hobart, Brisbane and Adelaide in that.
Senator SINGH: Is that something that SPAA would think would be a good idea to look at? The BBC have gone through the complete reversal I think of what Australia is currently going through and that is a centralisation back out to a decentralisation model because they have seen the effects of losing support for the BBC from the regions or anyone outside of London. Therefore, they have instilled a new production guarantee. We, of course, have got the opposite here. We have got a more centralisation model. I think all of the programs—as we have just talked about—in your submission are produced by production companies in Melbourne and Sydney. We are just about to lose the Tasmanian production unit here in Tasmania. We do not have a huge thriving independent sector. As Ms Connolly said, we do not even have a SPAA chapter here in Tasmania. So do you think something like that BBC model would be a good idea for Australia, for the ABC?
Mr Johnston : Provided a mixed model was maintained, that a certain level of independent programming was sourced. We would not have a problem with that.
Senator MILNE: I want to go first to representatives from Wide Angle Tasmania. This comes down to the issue of, if you went with a mixed production model, what is the likelihood that independent production companies will survive in Tasmania in the absence of the technical capacity and support that is currently there as a result of the ABC unit—this idea that suddenly these independent production companies will be viable in Tasmania and there for the asking?
Ms Connolly : That is a good question. I think that it is quite clear. It depends on the type of programming we are talking about. There are obviously a handful of small, highly regarded production companies in Tasmania—Blue Rocket, Roar Film and others. To some extent, the strengths of the state have lain in factual production—documentary in particular—and to some extent children's animation and educational production. The capacity to produce the programs currently being produced does depend to a certain extent on facilities that do not exist outside of the ABC. A studio, for instance, was fairly recently constructed. It does not belong to the ABC but its viability has been ensured by ABC use of that facility. Without the ABC's use of that facility, it appears that the studio is dark. So, for anyone to undertake production requiring studio facilities, that is not a possibility. Certainly some equipment, as I understand it, also has been used by independent producers who hire equipment—large and small—from the ABC. Most importantly in some ways, there are ABC personnel who have generously shared their expertise for many years with other people operating in the sector and also, from a wide angle perspective of most concern, with emerging screen practitioners. So the kinds of skills they have have been passed on and have helped to develop the screen sector here.
The answer to your question is: I think that the existing production capacity is somewhat diminished, that the small companies will have some difficulties with equipment and infrastructure in particular, and that the renewal of talent in the Tasmanian screen sector will be very problematic without the expertise that ABC production personnel have offered.
Senator MILNE: Given that—it is fairly dire—is this different to other states because of our size, critical mass et cetera in terms of establishing a film industry here and again the link to the NBN and new content and all that sort of thing? Relative to other states, would you say the ABC's contribution here—technical expertise, infrastructure support and so on—is much more significant than in larger population bases?
Ms Connolly : Yes, is the short answer. I personally have worked in Victoria and New South Wales, inside and outside the ABC, and I was also at one period responsible for administering what was called a national interest program that was managed by Film Australia—it no longer exists, but it is a former Commonwealth government production company—so I have a reasonable overview. There is no question that the significance of that infrastructure in Tasmania is greater than in Melbourne or Sydney, where there are alternative studios, base of personnel and facilities and equipment and postproduction houses and so forth that are available to the independent sector and to the ABC, which sometimes uses outside facilities as well. That certainly is true in Melbourne and Sydney.
I think Perth, Adelaide and to a lesser extent Brisbane—perhaps Owen would know more about Brisbane than me—are also to a lesser extent dependent on the ABC's infrastructure, but perhaps to a lesser extent that somewhere as small as Tasmania. As you suggest, historically there are also reasons for this to do with the fact that Screen Tasmania exists here and is a young and important agency in the Tasmanian screen sector. It is not particularly well resourced and it has only existed since 1999. To compare that to South Australia, which has had a film corporation dating back to the renaissance of the Australian film industry that has been putting in resources and developing the industry there for such a long time, it is obviously historically in an advantageous position compared to somewhere like Tasmania where we really have a nascent screen sector.
Senator MILNE: I can tell you that there is a lot of resentment about the fact that Tasmania put in the dollars for the Goodwood studio. Could you recap for the committee if there was any informal arrangement with the ABC in terms of any guarantees or discussions that if the Tasmanian government put up the money through Screen Tasmania to develop the Goodwood studio what the longer term relationship with the ABC would be?
Ms Connolly : I am sorry, I do not know the answer to that question. People who have been here longer than I may know that.
Ms Binning : No, I am not aware of the relationship, but Economic Development is talking later so they might—
Senator MILNE: I will pursue that with them. My question now comes back to the screen association: given what you have just heard about the fact that the viability of independent production is really threatened, particularly in terms of infrastructure and technical support if we lose that, does that change your view about the claims you have made in your submission? I mean to say you say, 'We support a mixed production model and therefore we can see this sort of thing sourced elsewhere'.
Mr Johnston : If, as Sharon points out, the ABC facilities are integral to the local industry or the capacity of the local industry to produce Tasmanian programs, then, yes. I had not considered that, I must confess.
Senator MILNE: I really thank you for that because that is a key component of this—that is, yes, there are people on the mainland who could fly in and make content here in Tasmania, but without the ABC facility here we will lose that fledgling capacity we have and we will lose on the investment that has already been made in the Goodwood studio. I think that is really very poor economics, and especially given the professor's remarks a little while ago that the cultural industries for Tasmania are so significant to our economic development. The Greens have been arguing that for some time; we simply cannot afford to lose it. Given your acknowledgement now, I want to say I do appreciate that because it is a changed position and it does matter to the committee that that has occurred, so thank you.
Senator BILYK: Mr Johnston, I was wondering if you have any comments on what is likely to happen. Are any independent co-produced shows with the ABC in Tasmania likely to proceed if the Tasmanian government does not put it in the $1.5 million that the ABC has so kindly asked it to?
Mr Johnston : I am not in a position to comment because I do not know what programs the ABC is thinking of commissioning from the independent sector at this point.
Senator BILYK: Do you think that production output at the ABC Tas production unit can be equalled by the independent sector?
Mr Johnston : I think that is always possible.
Senator BILYK: How possible?
Mr Johnston : It would need significant leverage of funding from elsewhere, which the independent sector is able to do. I concede it would be difficult.
Senator BILYK: So the level of production that we have had until recently is not likely to be met—is that what you are saying?
Mr Johnston : It would be difficult for the independent sector to exceed the in-house production levels, that is true.
Senator BILYK: And that leads me to my other questions, which are mainly to Ms Connolly. In your submission, the Wide Angle Tas submission, you mention:
… all Australians living outside the major metropolitan markets have cause to feel they are regarded as second class viewers.
Taking into account the answers of Mr Johnston I tend to agree that it is more likely to happen, but I am just wondering if you would like to expand on that for the committee?
Ms Connolly : I think I made that comment in the submission in relation to the collection of ratings data and the way in which that is used to inform decision-making inside the corporation. Anybody who has worked in there knows that the morning after the your program has gone to air everybody very excitedly is running around the tea urn—do we still have tea urns?—
Senator BILYK: We don't have tea persons anymore.
Ms Connolly : discussing the figures for the night before, and those figures come from the five mainland capitals.
There is no question that regional figures are added in later, but as I understand it they are normally aggregated and so there is no consideration of the specificity of audience responses and needs in places other than the five mainland capitals until much later. And I can honestly say that I do not think that the data that comes later has much influence on the way decisions about program commissions are made. That means the people in the five mainland capitals get an inordinate amount of influence, if you like, over the kinds of choices that commissioning editors and others make. I think that is the short answer. I may not have answered the second part of your question.
Senator BILYK: That is fine. I am just wondering if you have any comments to make. I think you were talking about OzTAM in those surveys.
Ms Connolly : Yes.
Senator BILYK: But Newspoll did an ABC appreciation survey for them and it appears to show downward trends in how the ABC is perceived by its audience. Since 2009 the rating of 'number of shows you like to watch' has dropped from 70 per cent to 65 per cent, and this appears to overlap with the increase of co-productions by the ABC and external providers. Do you think that reflects regional Australia getting annoyed that content does not reflect their regions?
Ms Connolly : I think that is a difficult question and one that probably would require more research to be able to say definitively, but I think every television network everywhere in the world is experiencing losses of audience to other platforms. Fragmentation of the television market has meant diminishing audiences everywhere, so I think that is probably a part of that. How those networks then respond to that is another question. The tendency has been to respond by creating event television—the MasterChef grand finale and that kind of thing—which attracts large audiences, which then impress advertisers, which mean that more money flows into the network. The ABC has found itself—as has SBS to an extent—locked into the same game as the commercial players for reasons which we all know about: how do you argue relevance if you are losing audience share?
Senator BILYK: Could I just clarify. In my reading of that survey it is actually people that are watching the ABC but are not happy with the shows they like to watch. It is not people who are no longer watching the ABC. As I read it, it is more about the content.
Ms Connolly : Anecdotally, one would say that there is actually some discontent about ABC television offerings everywhere, which as the ABC has increased its networks have tended to become, one could argue, slightly lighter on ABC1 and more repetitive on ABC2. I do not have young children so I do not tend to watch ABC3. I love ABC News 24; I think it is terrific that the ABC has this service, but if that has come at the expense of regional representation then I would be very sorry. Yes, in all probability, I think that does reflect some dissatisfaction. The ABC should be very careful about those figures, because those people will ultimately leave television. They will not just leave the ABC; they will go to other platforms.
Senator BILYK: The other link to that in your submission is the anecdotal evidence that 'many Tasmanians have become increasingly alienated from a national broadcaster that appears to have little regard for the culture of their home state'—and you go on. Would you agree?
Ms Connolly : Yes. I think in our experience it is quite clear that it is not only the production sector that does not feel that it has much of a relationship with ABC decision making. I think Tasmanian audiences also have real doubts that their interests are being adequately represented. I have worked on programs in which we thought we had better make one program in Tasmania a year, and the producer of that program would always fly in from Sydney to make that program, sometimes with local personnel. But there is a sense that the effort is tokenistic.
Senator CAMERON: Mr Johnston, in the SPAA submission you summarise your submission by saying that you 'can see no negative implications from recent management decisions on the ABC’s capacity to reflect and represent regional Australia'. You say:
On the contrary, we believe the evidence suggests that the ABC’s capacity to do this is enhanced by cutting expensive and underutilised internal resources and replacing it with commissioned programming from the independent sector.
SPAA would say that, wouldn't they?
Mr Johnston : Of course. That is what our members do.
Senator CAMERON: So there is an innate benefit to your members if it is commissioned outside; you have a vested interest in trying to get more work for your members.
Mr Johnston : Yes, that is correct.
Senator CAMERON: I do not argue with that at all and I do not know if your analysis is correct. Do you have a copy of the ABC's submission?
Mr Johnston : I do, but not on me.
Senator CAMERON: Your organisation gets the benefit through the co-production proposal.
Mr Johnston : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: On page 12—you have not got it with you—the ABC says:
The ABC proposes to partner with independent producers as this will better provide the flexibility to commission Australian content that meets needs of the schedule, the requirements of the Charter and audience demand.
They go on to say:
It is hoped—
I think it is a big concession from the ABC that they have done this more in hope than analysis—
that this approach will emulate the successful partnerships the ABC has put together … in other states.
I have been to Tasmania a couple of times recently, and one of the issues that I have dealt with is—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Senator CAMERON: Senator Bilyk says she has checked my passport! One of the issues that has come up has been the financial pressure placed on the state government. The state government is looking at its priorities in terms of funding. So if there is no state government funding—and that is quite a distinct possibility—then the hope that ABC has that this will produce more work is gone, isn't it?
Mr Johnston : It is reduced; yes. Can you have less hope? I guess, yes, there is less hope.
Senator CAMERON: So do you think it is appropriate to develop your cultural strategy, your television strategy and your media strategy on the basis of hope?
Mr Johnston : I am not sure I am qualified to comment on that.
Senator CAMERON: We might ask the ABC that. I just wanted your view, because it seems to me that the money may not be there. The probabilities are that it will not be there; therefore this increased commissioning will not be there. The ABC also go on to say that the partnership will provide that flexibility and that will meet the needs of the schedule, the requirements of the charter and audience demand. So if there is no money coming in from the state government, given that you are in the industry, would the ABC, in your view, be able to meet the needs of the schedule, the requirements of the charter and audience demand? These are three big issues. You have made the argument that the charter is met, but if there is absolutely no production here, which is a distinct possibility, and you then lose a Tasmanian identity, how can the charter be met?
Mr Johnston : I am not sure those two things follow. I do not think the charter requires the ABC to produce in-house. It requires it to reflect national diversity. So stories about Tasmania can still be made.
Senator CAMERON: Where?
Mr Johnston : They can be made in Tasmania but they do not have to be made by the ABC. Is that what you are saying?
Senator CAMERON: No. You heard the evidence from Professor Malpas.
Mr Johnston : Yes.
Senator CAMERON: What he is saying is that if you do not make it within Tasmania then it has less of a cultural feel for Tasmania, it does not reflect properly the Tasmanian psyche. His evidence was pretty strong on that. So if the state government does not provide the money and the independent industry does not provide any money then obviously no production takes place here. And according to Professor Malpas that diminishes the Tasmanian identity and there is a flow-on analysis that you have to make for the ABC's capacity to meet its charter. So I am asking: if it is not there, and it is produced outside, what are the implications for the ABC and its charter of responsibilities?
Mr Johnston : I find that quite a difficult concept. All of the drama programs, for example, that reflect Australia's culture and diversity are made by companies in Sydney and Melbourne, and they tell stories set in other locales all over Australia. The ABC has been meeting its charter requirements in terms of reflecting Australian stories dramatically without making them and without having the production companies based in states other than New South Wales and Victoria. I think that news and current affairs are very important parts of reflecting cultural diversity, and I do not think there is any suggestion that that be altered here in Tasmania. So I think that is another area of production—a significant area of ABC production—that reflects national diversity.
I guess we are coming down to factual programs, which is one part of the whole gamut of the programming that they show. I take the professor's views on board—that there is a certain degree of cultural authenticity that comes from being situated physically in and being part of that community and telling a story about it. You can still have someone come in from outside and tell a Tasmanian story and it will reflect some part of the diversity—maybe not to the full extent that the professor has laid out.
It is a complex issue, because there is a lot of programming that the ABC does. And it is not just television; they also do radio content as well. I am not sure that that has answered your question, but—
Senator CAMERON: There is just this issue where you have said in your submission that they meet the charter. Others have said that they do not. And the ABC itself is saying it hopes it can continue. I was just wondering why you were so firm in your position when even the ABC in its own submission is not as firm as you are, in terms of: it is 'hoping' it can do it. That is where I am coming from.
Senator CAROL BROWN: To follow up on that, do you actually think it is good business for the ABC's managing director to come down and say, 'We're going to close a TV production unit; the jobs are going, but I have got this independent fund for you but I have not spoken to the other half of where I want the money to come from'? Is that something that SPAA would see as a good way of operating their business—to put forward this sweetener, so to speak, for Tasmania when they have not even had the courtesy to speak to the Tasmanian government? Is that something that you see should be the way you should operate as a national broadcaster?
Mr Johnston : I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment on that.
Senator CAROL BROWN: You don't think that perhaps they might have been able to get their ducks in order?
Mr Johnston : Well, I do not know the full details of it, so—
Senator CAROL BROWN: I know the media release has indicated that Mr Scott would be talking to the Tasmanian government about putting in half the money.
Mr Johnston : Well, without knowing the full—
Senator CAROL BROWN: And the Premier has indicated that they had not had any discussions at all prior to the announcement. I think she was just as surprised as everybody else in regard to the announcement of the TV production unit being closed. Would you operate like that?
Mr Johnston : Again, that is press reports. I do not actually know what the ABC has done. I would prefer not to comment without knowing exactly what has transpired.
Senator CAROL BROWN: That is their own media, but, putting that unusual operating method to one side, and just to carry on from Senator Cameron, your submission says that the independent fund will enable more production to be carried out in Tasmania. But if that fund does not go ahead, for the reasons Doug Cameron has highlighted, that is not going to be the case, is it?
Mr Johnston : We would agree with that, yes.
Senator CAROL BROWN: And you still do not think that that would mean that the ABC would breach its charter?
Mr Johnston : I cannot tell what future plans it has to tell stories about Tasmania. So I cannot answer that.
Senator CAROL BROWN: Thank you.
Senator RUSTON: This follows on from the questioning from Senator Milne in relation to the issue of in-house versus out-of-house production. To turn the argument completely on its head, could it not be contended that the reason the independent film industry in Tasmania has not developed to the extent it possibly could have developed is that the ABC production unit has taken up such a significant amount of the production which has occurred in that state—given the figures quoted earlier of the 200-and-something hours versus 30 hours? May not the independent film sector in Tasmania be able to provide the hours if they were the ones who had the opportunity to do so? That is the reverse argument to the one that it is the ABC which is actually providing the film industry with support.
Ms Connolly : I can see that argument might be put and I would argue that history shows that is not the case. In South Australia, for instance, the independent sector has been built on the basis of institutional support going way back. That institutional support is still there in the form of ABC production activities and also in the form of the SAFC. I think you could say that was true in almost every place. It is not just the technical and physical infrastructure and expertise; it is also a critical mass problem. An industry as young and unformed as the Tasmanian one needs a lot of input before it can hope to get to the kind of level where it might produce the number of hours which some of us might feel to be appropriate for representing the state on national television. I do not think that will just happen without there being institutional support.
The Australian government has intervened in many ways to build industries all around the country. Those interventions, in terms of federal funding mechanisms and the tax offsets and institutions and organisations like the one that I once ran which had a national interest program, have all been put in place since the 1940s. It has taken that long to develop viable industries in, basically, two states. There are arguments about whether even they are viable. We could talk for a long time about that. Whilst I can see that you could turn it around and make that argument, I think experience shows that that is not the case—that if we withdraw more of the infrastructure from a small situation like this, the industry here will suffer and its capacity diminish. It would certainly not grow.
Mr Johnston : We have always supported a mixed model. If the ABC had enough money to keep all its facilities and staff and run its digital side as well, we would support that. The ABC has turned to us because that funding envelope has not been there for the independent sector. I agree with Sharon. I do not think that the ABC has prevented an industry from happening here. I do think there is an opportunity for more independently based production companies in the future if this funding, which we hope might materialise, were to eventuate.
Ms Connolly : Might I just add one more thing. We keep coming back to this matching funding question. I think the amount of the funding needs to be thought through, too. The fact that the ABC's offer is $1.5 million over three years, provided it is matched by state government, is not a huge amount of money. We are talking about a million dollars a year were the matching to happen. I think production costs need to be considered in relation to that amount. The ABC clearly sees that that money would be distributed in the form of prepurchase commitments. The ABC says it has three models of production—in-house, co-production, prepurchase—only one of those will be available in Tasmania if the ABC in-house capacity is reduced. There will not be any in-house production of TV other than news and current affairs and there will not necessarily be the personnel and facilities that often form part of co-production agreements, which are rarely only about the ABC contributing cash. They usually contribute other facilities and expertise as well. If that is not here, in Tasmania, that is not going to be possible. So Tasmanian production will be dependent on prepurchased program commitments where the ABC is the minority financier.
A million dollars does not go very far. It certainly would not produce much drama. We would be lucky if it produced one high-quality documentary hour, and it would, arguably, produce two. We are not talking about a lot of money here; that is complete funding. It is assuming that there is no money forthcoming from other places—and there may well not be. The nature of cultural specificity in program-making means that often overseas deals are less likely to come by or harder to come by and that there may not be many other sources of funding available. I could go on forever about that. What we are talking about is a million dollars a year for production. I do not know what the current drama average is—Owen might know better than me—
Mr Johnston : $600,000.
Ms Connolly : $600,000 an hour. It is not going to make you Mad Men.
Senator RUSTON: Can I bring this back to a sharper point. I did not read anywhere in the ABC's charter that it was actually a skills and training provider for the film industry. Notwithstanding your comments earlier about government funding and support and what have you—I do not disagree with that—but I am not sure that it is the ABC's role to provide that particular service to the film industry. I will take that one step further: in relation to your preceding comments about the dollars, from my reading of the submission $2.7 million was the original budget over the three years, and it has been brought back to $1.5 million, with matching funding and all the issues that Senator Cameron raised in terms of whether that is ever going to eventuate. They have been producing all these hours. The budget cut appears to be a reasonably small budget cut. How is the production being funded? I am trying to work it out. I am a bit confused about what we are comparing with what in terms of the dollars here.
Ms Connolly : Many people have tried to penetrate the math of the ABC and many have failed. What we are talking about in terms of the ABC contribution even on those figures is 2.7 versus 1.5.
Senator RUSTON: $1.5 million leveraged up to $3 million—
Ms Connolly : Yes, but that money is to come. The ABC is proposing to contribute $1.5 million over three years rather than what has been said to cost $2.7 million.
Senator RUSTON: But even at $2.7 million, if that $2.7 million were made available with the subsequent support for the private sector or the private industry, why is it that they cannot do it when the ABC can do it for those sorts of dollars?
Ms Connolly : The ABC has more infrastructure at its disposal, for instance. The ABC is very unlikely to fully fund a small production company as exists in Australia. It is not going to fully fund production of any program or series in Tasmania; that is highly unlikely. It very rarely does it at all and, when it does, it is normally the case that the ABC might put up the full cash budget of, for instance, some of Andrew Denton's company's series. It is no longer his company alone. But it was in the early days they might have funded all the cash costs. That company would have used the ABC Sydney facilities, studios, people and all sorts of other things, so it required a contribution not only of cash but also of facilities, which then will not be available.
I think it is very clear that the ABC preferences large and increasingly larger production companies in its commissioning decisions. Companies like Matchbox, which exists in Sydney and Melbourne, and Essential Media have in recent years have grown very rapidly, with considerable help from Screen Australia. They are now large companies, but none of them are based in Tasmania. They are much more likely to attract significant commissions from the ABC than a small company here that has maybe three people working in a very small office. So that money is not going to flow here in that way.
Senator RUSTON: I suppose I am trying to flesh out whether there is some way that you can maximise the use of the budgetary dollar that is available to facilitate the expansion and development and encourage the private sector to take on some of these roles, whilst in the process maintaining or enhancing the regional capacity. It is sort of like outsourcing versus the in-house model, and I would be encouraged to think that you as the private sector were in some way able to take advantage of the opportunity if more money was going to be available to the private sector, but it seems to me from what you are saying that possibly the reliance on the ABC and the institutionalised funding and resources of the government are still very necessary for you to operate.
Ms Connolly : It is a complex argument, isn't it, but it is a fragile ecology. It needs all parts of it to operate and function well in order for anything to happen in either the public or the private sector, and preferably in both. Wide Angle would support a mixed model. We train people to work in the private sector, but we know that that private sector is not going to thrive in a small state which does not have a significant ABC presence.
Ms Binning : The key is to have decision makers who are prepared to work with local production companies to be able to take advantage of any money that is on the table. In the last several years, that has been less and less likely in the independent sector in Tasmania.
Senator SINGH: Mr Johnston, I do not want to talk down the success story of some of your members, acknowledging that there are some fantastic independent screen production companies in Australia. But you talk about the opportunity with this cost shifting and creating a new independent fund which, we have heard from Wide Angle, is underfunded to start with. I can see that you would see that as an opportunity because your members potentially will benefit from that as opposed to the continuation of a local Tasmanian ABC production unit. Do you think it is important that, if in place, such a fund, however underfunded or what have you, should be tied to local Tasmanian production companies? Or do you think your members in Melbourne and Sydney should also have access to that fund?
Mr Johnston : If the capacity existed in Tasmania, we would support that, yes. If the capacity did not exist and it jeopardised the program's chances of being commissioned, we would see value in going to the mainland.
Senator SINGH: But won't the capacity only exist if the industry in Tasmania has the opportunity to access a fund that is there for them to build their capacity—
Mr Johnston : That is true.
Senator SINGH: without large production companies from Sydney and Melbourne coming down and having a bite of that cherry as well? How is the Tasmanian screen production industry going to get off the ground and be greater than what it is? In their submission, Wide Angle say that last year 'only a couple of hours of independent productions were commissioned from Tasmanian based producers'. How is it going to get off the ground if we do not, in a sense, quarantine or allow the independent Tasmanian screen industry to have that opportunity to have that first bite of the cherry, so to speak, of some fund, however small it may be?
Mr Johnston : We would support that—commissioning from the Tasmanian production companies. We support that already nationally. Companies based in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide produce material for both the ABC and SBS. Yes, we would support that, definitely.
Senator CAROL BROWN: Have we had any indication as to what happens after three years when the funding runs out? Has anyone—
Ms Connolly : I am not aware of any plan that goes beyond three years
Senator CAROL BROWN: So we have on offer that is well underfunded for what is required, we have not talked to the other half of that offer, it is only for three years and there is no ongoing funding that we know of?
Ms Connolly : As I understand it, there is no proposal to increase that offer, no, either in money terms or in the length of years that it is available for. As we indicated earlier, these things have long histories, so it has taken since the 1970s to have anything that might even be called an industry. And there are some people in Australia who balk at calling the screen sector an industry. I would be among them. It is still heavily subsidised by federal and state money. So three years is not going to be enough to create a viable screen sector here.
It is not just a screen sector that works in television; it is a screen sector that then works in all the other ways that we know about. So whilst our comments have mainly been about TV production, we are very concerned about Tasmanians being equipped not for the future but for now. It is actually here. It is down the street just out there, and we are not in a position to be able to use it and to lead the way.
CHAIR: Thank you very much to the witnesses for your time today.
Pr oceedings suspended from 12:32 to 13:33