When Socceroo defender Aziz Behich put the ball in his own net during the recent World Cup, handing France the win, Australia groaned in collective disappointment. He didn’t mean to, and he is already forgiven. But when CEO Michelle Guthrie prepares to launch the new ABC lifestyle section, it is an own goal for which it is hard to give absolution.
ABC Lifestyle segment is an own goal
Guthrie has previous form in defence. In a recent rebuttal to the criticism of the ABC from commercial media, she chose to take the stance of indignation rather than promoting the strengths of the organisation she leads. Instead of highlighting its undoubted excellence in content and online delivery, she chose to focus on how little it spends on digital marketing.
I hasten to add, I’m an ardent supporter of the ABC. It serves an important purpose as a national media company independent of commercial interest; funded by the public purse yet free to be critical of its paymaster, the Government.
And ever since its inception in 1932, the ABC has been subject to criticism from the voices that pretend to support free speech (beginning – surprise, surprise – with a certain Keith Murdoch). The ABC is also routinely subject to criticism by the current Government. During my time in Australia, every Prime Minister – from Hawke to Turnbull – have found reasons to criticise the ABC for bias.
To work at the ABC, and especially to be its CEO, requires a thick hide and a robust belief in its purpose. The day the criticism disappears is the day the ABC is no longer doing its job.
The ABC’s charter is broad, and there is nothing in it that precludes it from entering into lifestyle programming. But that doesn’t mean it should. It is spending eight million on this initiative, while having to cut cost in news and current affairs. One could (and should) argue against the recent reductions in ABC funding, but like any publicly funded activity it will always be subject to the vagaries and political shenanigans of the federal budget. What we should expect the ABC Board and its CEO to do, however, is to maximise and prioritise its funds towards a higher purpose than cooking shows and pet grooming!
According to the ABC the push into lifestyle segments is to attract a higher share of the younger audience. Considering Guthrie’s Google background I am surprised that she doesn’t seem to know the difference between relevance and reach, and between attraction and retention.
The ABC needs to be relevant, it needs to be accessible to all (which it is), but that doesn’t mean in needs to reach everyone. Lifestyle is an ultra-competitive segment, and together with entertainment and sport, the bread and butter of commercial media. It is also fickle – brand loyalty is selective and transient. So although lifestyle content may attract a younger audience, it is no guarantee that they will stay, nor that they will readily hop across to the ABC’s other content. This is an online initiative and online the next story about better sex is only a click away.
As mainstream media is investing less on news, features and analysis, the ABC has an opportunity to attract a younger audience through innovation in these areas. Why wade in where everybody else is swimming, subjecting itself to even more attacks from those legitimately protecting their own revenue. Moreover, with a high risk of failure and even more criticism for no gain.
The ABC must be the best of the best in news and current affairs. It needs to question the vested interest, including the Government, at all times. It needs to have the capacity to dig deep, and to go where commercial interests won’t. To attract a younger audience, why not invest in people and content and stories that are relevant to that audience – without pandering to the lowest common denominator? There are plenty of young people seeking news, information, and analysis, not just relationship advice! Use the natural strengths of the ABC in ways that a younger audience find attractive. Why not go boldly where the younger audience is, on social media? Why not create a bespoke youth division that attracts young journalists and influencers? Attract the next Waheed Aly! Eight million can do a lot of that.
The ABC needs to stand firmly on the barricades of free speech, seeking relevance, not hide behind the kitchen bench on a cooking show.