Some go to the beach. Some have barbecues. Lucky them.

I spent Australia Day reading through some of the more than 2400 submissions to the Government’s review of public broadcasting. I could dress this up as patriotism, I suppose. No. It’s just sad.

Anyway, the result is a short news story for Crikey later today, plus a longer piece for the online periodical Inside Story, which should be published later this week. The main point of the longer piece is that the threats to public broadcasting are as potent as ever, but most of the supporters of Auntie and SBS are fighting the wrong battles.

That leaves just one aspect from the submissions to mention here. It intrigues me, and I suspect there is a bigger story behind it that I’m not getting to.

One of the issues the review is looking at is the potential to merge some of the “back office” functions of the ABC and SBS, and in particular transmission services.

Now I know this isn’t the sort of thing that gets most people’s juices flowing, but it is important to the future of the public broadcasters. At the moment, ABC and SBS are the captive clients of Broadcast Australia, owned by the Macquarie Bank. There is little or no competition for their custom, and they are on long term contracts.

I know the Government is keenly interested in the swathes of taxpayyer money that goes straight to the Macquarie Bank. Each year SBS spends almost $80 million out of total government funding of $188 million on transmission. SBS estimates the ABC spends about $170 million out of $850 million in Government funding. In other words, if these costs could be cut both organisations would be much better off at no net cost to the taxpayer.

SBS suggested at the 2020 Summit that the two public broadcasters look at amalgamating their transmission and distribution. A working party was formed to look at  the issue, but the two organisations seem to have come to curiously different views of what that working party concluded.

The ABC submission says:

Unfortunately, the working group concluded that, as a result of the ways in which the two organisations’ contracts with their transmission services provider are structured, there are few, if any, efficiencies to be gained from merging the services highlighted in the SBS paper.

The ABC reckons it is worth looking at other back office functions, but not at transmission.

But SBS has a quite different view of what is possible:

Transmission and distribution services could be provided to the SBS and ABC on a fee for service basis funded by government appropriation. They could also be made available to Indigenous and community broadcasters. Individual service agreements with the joint venture could ensure that services did not need to be one size fits all and the broadcasters could be free to acquire specialised services, outside the service agreement, from other players, if this made sense.
In this way SBS and the ABC would retain editorial control of their content offerings, maintain their distinct Charters and personalities and management could focus on content rather than on infrastructure management or engineering issues. SBS is willing to explore opportunities for operational synergies with the ABC.

So, is it possible to combine and save money on transmission services, or isn’t it? Should the Macquarie Bank be worried, or are our public broadcasters shackled hand and foot to the existing arrangements?

A number of questions follow from this. What exactly is the nature of the current contracts? What are their terms? Is either SBS or the ABC getting a better deal?

These are pretty important questions involving $250 million of public money, yet the arrangements concerned seem to be opaque – and even SBS and ABC don’t seem to to agree on whether or not they can be rearranged.

It would be nice to have some clarity on this. Somebody must know the inside story. Tips appreciated.

Now, enough. I’m off to bang my head against a brick wall instead. It might be more fun.

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