The ABC’s “aggressive expansion” into the commercial media landscape has been criticised by Fairfax Media, which believes the public broadcaster’s digital promotion and clickbait content is undermining the level playing field for commercial players.
In Fairfax’s nine-page submission to the Australian government’s inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the public-funded ABC and SBS, the publisher called out the ABC’s spending of taxpayer funds on marketing through digital platforms and clickbait news content to drive page views.
“We value the ABC’s commitment to reflecting Australia’s diverse viewpoints. We think the ABC has a strong role to play to ensure that marginal voices are heard, where it is not commercially viable to do so. We respect the high quality, journalistic principles that the ABC adheres to,” the submission read.
“But in order to maintain the diversity of media required for a functioning democracy, we believe that the government-funded ABC Online needs to refocus its content on distinctive, high-quality content, that is not ratings driven, but that contributes to the national identity and addresses market failure, for example in regional areas that lack scale. This would bring its activities back in line with the spirit of the original charter.”
ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was dismissive of such claims, stating in an opinion piece published in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, that the cries from commercial broadcasters make it seem as though “it is the 1930s all over again”.
“We reject the argument that by delivering news and other content free on online platforms, we are undermining efforts by some commercial media operators to extract revenue from their digital content,” Ms Guthrie said.
“Our digital remit is baked into our charter, along with the requirement to do public interest journalism and offer broad appeal and specialist programs, such as for kids and regional audiences. We are digital because that’s where audiences are spending time for their news and entertainment.”
Fairfax argues that since the advent of the ABC’s digital presence in 1995, the public broadcaster has been increasingly competing for audiences.
As it receives money from the government, it is not restricted by the monetary constraints faced by commercial publishing companies. The SBS is in an even better position, according to Fairfax, receiving government money alongside advertising revenues, which are being taken away from competitors.
The allocation of taxpayer funds to promote the content was questioned by the commercial publisher.
The ABC was defensive of criticism of it digital spend in its submission, calling the $2.3 million it allocates to digital marketing a “modest” amount.
“The ABC’s total spend in this area was $4.6 million or 0.4 per cent of its total budget. Within this modest paid media budget, a subset is now spent on digital marketing (0.2 per cent of the ABC’s total budget in 2016-17), including on third-party platforms, which are the dominant players in digital.”
The ABC argues that this spend makes their content more accessible and discoverable to Australians. On top of the push into digital publishing, the ABC also has an ongoing deal with Google, utilising the digital platform’s AdWords product to increase the prevalence of its content in search results above that of commercial players.
Fairfax pre-emptively rejected this claim in its submission.
“Anytime that a story is being promoted on Google, the purpose is to outbid a competitor – the story would reach the audience regardless. The only winner in this scenario is the overseas-owned platform (in this example, Google),” Fairfax said in the submission.
The ABC justified its overall external marketing spend by comparing it to that of commercial players Southern Cross Austereo and Seven West Media, highlighting that both companies’ level of spend is “8-10 times higher than the proportion spent by the ABC”.
Neither of the companies mentioned receive taxpayer funding.
The Fairfax submission also criticised the broadcasters movement toward “news items with solely entertainment value, neither high quality nor distinctive”.
The ABC’s charter states the service must provide “audiences with choice, is independent, and is not driven by ratings or profit.” Fairfax’s submission questioned whether the ABC can uphold this position as it chased larger audiences.
“Their newsroom focuses significant effort on producing content with broad appeal that is often identical to that produced by the commercial players. Moreover it is often taken from the commercial sector in the first place and lightly edited,” said Fairfax.
However, the ABC said its digital news content “looks to focus on issues and stories that are complex, relevant and require explanation”.
“The ABC’s digital news team actively considers what stories they can leave to the commercial networks and what issues the ABC can cover to deliver value to the overall media market,” the public broadcaster’s submission read.
“It avoids stories designed merely to attract large audiences, but which it considers do not have a broader value, such as those relating to celebrities, reality television or viral social media content.”
However this does not always appear to be the case.
When the stars of Netflix’s hit reality series Queer Eye came to Australia in June, the ABC generated a series of content across radio, online and social media. The free promotion garnered national syndication, with two videos on Facebook racking up cumulative views of over 268,000. The content, which included the stars playing an Australian version of “would you rather” and guessing Australian slang alongside more in depth interviews, mirroring the content available by commercial competitors. Later in the month, it also published an opinion piece by an unknown freelance writer, critiquing the shows portrayal of low socio-economic status.
Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood has been vocal in his criticisms of the ABC’s expansion into the commercial space.
In August 2017, prior to media law reforms, Mr Hywood said: “At the very time the Turnbull government has reform legislation in parliament to deal with the structural issues facing the commercial media sector, its own agencies – the ABC and SBS – are using taxpayer dollars to distort the content market. This madness needs to stop. [Communications Minister] Senator [Mitch Fifield] needs to pull the reins on such activity – hard.
“The very strong view of the industry is that the ABC and SBS have exceeded their charters. The government needs to restate or clarify the boundaries in which the ABC and SBS operate. This should not include using taxpayers’ money to undercut commercial operators on programming and threaten jobs.”
News Corp Australia is another concerned media company, having made a submission to the inquiry. Executive chairman Michael Miller has said on the issue: “As the commercial sector painfully waits for a political decision, the ABC and SBS are becoming more and more aggressive commercial competitors who are determined to join the ranks of digital streaming services rather than meet the unmet needs of Australia, and particularly, regional Australia.”
The News submission will be made public at the discretion of the Australian Department of Communications and the Arts.