OPINION | The ABC should stop broadcasting sport


Here is an idea for how the ABC might deal with the inevitable round of cuts next Budget.

Clever bureaucrats when faced with funding cuts go for the jugular. They attack some popular vote-sensitive function and announce it will be cut. The backlash often results in a funding rethink.

The ABC has lost $330 million in annual funding in the eight years to 2018, about a third of its 2010 budget.

In 2017-18 it was down to $865 million or just 9.5 cents per person per day, down from 19 cents a day in 1987.

If you convert the figures to 1987 dollars you get the famous 8 cents a day of the 1987 campaign compared to 4 cents a day (in 1987 dollar terms) today.

In short, the ABC has lost half its funding over the past 30 years. Small wonder it is full of cheap panel and cooking shows and overseas drama series.

Nonetheless, it does a pretty good job.

As my mother said to me years ago in her nursing home communal lounge where the TV was locked permanently on to a commercial channel: “Crispin, can you imagine life without the ABC!”

Most of the funding cuts were accommodated through efficiencies, but now all fat, duplication and waste is gone. Any more cuts will have to go to core production.

So here is the big idea. Instead of salami slicing and hurting every area of ABC endeavour, why not go for the jugular. The ABC should announce that it is ending all coverage of sport.

The savings would go to meeting the cut first and any left over go to Australian drama and documentaries. SBS should do the same.

The screams from the politicians, particularly the Coalition ones, would be loud indeed. But the ABC could quite reasonably argue that conservative commentators have long called for the ABC not to replicate what the commercials can do.

Of course, that commentary has been directed at news and current affairs, but the fact is the commercials do not do news and current affairs the way the ABC and SBS do – concentrating on news of consequence; investigating matters of public importance and exposing malfeasance.

However, the ABC sports coverage is little different from the commercial coverage. Further, sport is a spectacle and a result. Bias and error are rare and quickly correctable, unlike political coverage.

Further, there is little of public importance in sport. It does not matter one whit whether NSW or Queensland wins the State of Origin or whether Australia or England wins the ashes.

Elite competitive sport is a business. The ABC should not be wasting precious public money paying the eye-watering amounts of money demanded for the right to televise 30 or so, usually men, move a ball across the ground.

Nor should it contribute to sport’s exposure and audience generation which amounts to free advertising and drives the cost of broadcast rights ever higher. The commercial channels can do it well enough.

Sport is so thoroughly commercial that there is an argument that its coverage offends the commercial-free demands of the ABC’s charter.

The ABC’s sports coverage cannot avoid giving free advertising to the sponsors whose logos are emblazoned across every sports ground and uniform. Indeed, it is worse than free advertising. The ABC is in effect paying the advertiser rather than the other way around.

Lastly, the argument that coverage of sport sets a good example for fitness and team spirit falls flat. Many elite footballers end with wrecked bodies or brain damage through soccer headers.

Everyday fitness for ordinary people has nothing to do with the commercial spectacle of elite sport, which encourages couch potato viewers more than active participation.

And for every aspirational example in elite sport there are two or three examples of elites sports people engaging in illegal or disreputable conduct, the latter of which gets the most media coverage.

As to how much the ABC would save from axing sport, it is hard to say. The ABC’s media arm said: “It would be difficult to work out. ‘Covering sport’ is a very broad search term – the ABC would cover sport in a whole lot of ways across multiple teams – for example in News, Grandstand, on radio, in regional coverage.” It directed me to the annual report. I had already looked at that and it provided no answer.

Further, information on the cost of sport coverage in both the 2014 and 2018 reports into ABC and SBS efficiency was specifically redacted. Perhaps it was too embarrassingly high.

Even if the ABC does not lose funding it should still look at cutting sport and increasing Australian drama and documentaries.

But the ABC should get more money, not less. The BBC, for example, gets four times the per capita funding than the ABC gets. That’s why it does such an unparalleled job, without even considering dropping sport.

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