Last night saw the launch of the ABC’s new 24 hour television news service in an environment where the politics of reporting politics is at least as bitterly contested as the election itself. Our news media organisations are beginning to resemble the purveyors of Viagra with their claims to do it deeper, longer, harder and faster.
Sky News issued a media release yesterday that was all about the ABCs launch without actually mentioning it. The pay television channel claimed that its 24 hour coverage was “unrivalled” and spruiked the fact that its political editor David Speers (and not the ABC’s people) had been chosen to moderate the leaders’ debate at the National Press Club on Sunday night.
This, of course, is part of a wider battle. This week is also the deadline for submissions to the government on the future of the overseas broadcasting service Australia Network. Sky News hopes to steal the Department of Foreign Affairs funded gig from Auntie, while ABC Managing Director Mark Scott wants to position the ABC as an instrument of Australia’s “soft diplomacy” at a time when governments in our region are spending up big on broadcasting.
And more broadly, there is the pressure from commercial news organizations who have argued in recent times that the taxpayer dollar should not be used to pay for media services that the market can provide, and that the ABC should therefore be pegged back.
So if the ABC’s new service had fallen flat or been plagued with technical glitches, the loss of credibility would have come at a crucial time, and been an enormous gift to the ABC’s critics, and SkyNews in particular.
So how did it go? Launching new media enterprises is a bit like making pancakes. The first one never comes out quite right.
It was helpful that Auntie had a story to break, particularly since one of the main sources of criticism in recent times (including from me) has been that the ABC doesn’t do this often enough, and that the new service might result in resources being spread even more thinly.
Within five minutes of the launch, reporter Chris Uhlmann was breaking the news that Kevin Rudd had, as Prime Minister, allowed his young chief of staff to deputise for him at the National Security Committee – probably the most important committee of government – appalling senior officials and Cabinet ministers. As Uhlmann said, this was an insight in to the chaos at the heart of the Rudd office, and the reasons why the former Prime Minister’s colleagues dumped him.
The follow through was pretty good too, with interviews with retired defence forces chief Admiral Chris Barrie and defence analyst Hugh White.
So far so good.
Unnervingly, the news presenters were all standing up, looking as though they did not know what to do with their hands, while they nodded and smiled at each other and conducted conversations with the correspondents on giant screens. I am not sure if this mode of presentation was just for the launch, or will stay.
I would guess the aim is to look more dynamic, and I guess the newsreader behind the desk is a tired old device. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if they had a little chair just out of camera range for the presenters to sit on between times. This would surely be needed for Ali Moore at least, given the height of the heels she was wearing. It all looked a bit stagey to me, and I couldn’t stop worrying about her feet, which distracted me from the news.
Later in the evening presenters were sitting down in the normal fashion, and looking much more comfortable.
The launch continued with classy and in depth reports from China and Tasmania, the Murray Mouth, London, Palm Island and the USA. It was all looking pretty good. One Twitter commentator described it as Sky News on steroids. But it seemed to me the ABC was aiming for a quite different vibe – lengthier pieces with an emphasis on making use of the ABC’s “on the ground” presence and original material, rather than the cut and paste approach.
But it wasn’t all good. Once the launch special was over it was time for the new discussion program The Drum, loosely linked to the opinion website of the same name. This fell flat. The participants – Annabel Crabb, Daily telegraph columnist Tim Blair and Julian Morrow from the Chaser, sat around a glass table the shape of an elongated donut, seemingly miles away from the anchor.
They were all trying hard, and it showed. They managed to be neither penetrating nor witty. If there was any chemistry between them it was invisible to the viewer. The show really seemed to be an interview by anchor Steve Cannane, rather than a free floating discussion. It was a very long half hour.
But it was back to quality with the new The World program. There were a few wobbles, and a fair few ABC personnel looking nervous, but the content was good.
The One on One interview program was another long half hour, but the rolling news bulletins had substance and modicum of style.
I kept watching until after midnight, when Auntie threw to the BBC World Service.
Overall, it was good – quite different in flavour and tone to SkyNews, a conscious playing to Auntie’s strengths in journalistic presence. On its first airing, ABC24 seemed to be an addition to the field, not an imitation.
The question has to be whether this standard can be maintained. If it can, then the critics will have been proven wrong. But of course a bank of good material will have been collected for the launch.
The proof of the pudding will be over the rest of the election campaign, and in the year ahead.
There are other battles going on in media land. The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday launched its application for delivery on i-phones and i-pads – weeks after The Australian released its app. I haven’t had time to try the SMH effort yet, but have been using The Australian’s app for some weeks. It has improved a little over the last fortnight, but is still an underwhelming and basic effort that takes about ten minutes to read, and delivers only about half of the paper.
I gather that there was enormous pressure, but very few resources, brought to bear within News Limited to make sure that the Australian was first. I’ll be interested to see if Fairfax managed to do any better with the extra time.
Watch Crikey for a review of news based iPad apps in the next few weeks.
And I’ll be keeping an eye on ABC24.