ABC director of news Kate Torney says the news channel is ‘‘an extension of what we do’’. ‘(I hope) the channel will be a place for discussion about public policy and where Australia is heading.’ CHRIS UHLMANN
NO ONE saw it coming. The federal election was supposed to be months away. That would be the big story to announce the arrival of ABC News 24. But then, out of the blue, Julia Gillard became Australia’s prime minister.
It caught the national broadcaster off guard. While reporters Chris Uhlmann and Mark Simkin did the ABC proud by breaking the story on its 7pm news bulletin on June 23, later that night audiences might have wondered what was going on.
Those tuned to the ABC’s popular Wednesday night shows, Spicks and Specks and The Gruen Transfer, were informed of the events unfolding in Canberra via newsbreaks but, when the decision was made to break into normal programming shortly after 10pm, a series of technical glitches botched the smooth introduction to one of the most dramatic political stories in Australian history.
‘‘It was frustrating for our journalists,’’ newsreader Juanita Phillips says. ‘‘We wished we had the 24-hour news channel up and running. I think any doubts about ‘Do we need it?’ were completely pasted over,’’ says Phillips, who is something of a veteran in the 24-hour news business, having anchored such channels at CNN and the BBC.
One month later, ABC News 24 is ready for take-off.
Its raison d’etre, however, isn’t just to cover once-in-a-lifetime stories, such as the sudden rise of Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
‘‘News is a very important part of who we are as a national broadcaster,’’ says director of news Kate Torney. ‘‘A news channel is a natural extension of what we do. We produce hours of quality content each and every day. We put as much as possible online but there’s also a large sector of the ABC audience that wants to see that on TV.’’
Unlike Sky News, which is available by subscription, ABC News 24 will be free, though viewers will need to have an HD digital TV or HD set-top box (the cheapest cost less than $100). As there is no spectrum available for a new service, the ABC is using its existing HD channel to transmit the signal, meaning those programs that were simulcast in HD no longer will be. The ABC estimates at least 57percent of Australian households will be able to access the channel.
ABC News 24 will be streamed online and on the Apple iPhone. Streaming on other mobiles and the iPad are in development.
Torney says the channel will be an opportunity to air content produced for eight different 7pm bulletins that wouldn’t otherwise be seen by audiences outside that state. ‘‘In the past, we’ve had fantastic stories come out of our state newsrooms but haven’t made a national agenda for all the right reasons,’’ she says. ‘‘Half an hour is not a lot of space to fill for a news bulletin.’’
The potential loser in this is Sky News, the part News Limited-owned broadcaster that launched in 1996 and has made a name for itself largely on the back of its fleet-footed coverage of federal politics and its Canberra-based correspondent David Speers.
Managing director Angelos Frangopoulos has been critical about the public broadcaster’s push into the 24-hour news market, arguing it is not good use of public funds to duplicate a service that already exists. But on the eve of the channel’s launch, he is pulling his punches.
He says Sky News is different to the ABC’s new channel. ‘‘We’re not just a 24-hour news channel but a 24-hour business channel, a 24-hour public affairs channel, 24-hour local news for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth and a multiview service. Our proposition is very different to that of any other 24-hour news operator,’’ says Frangopoulos.
As well as time-shifted shows from ABC1 and rolling coverage of breaking events, there will be a swag of new programs on the new channel (see above panel).
Events such as huge federal politics stories will still prompt the interruption of programs on ABC1 but Torney says the channel will help the ABC handle major breaking news by providing a news room and anchor that is always ready for broadcasting.
Head of continuous news Gaven Morris says the content produced for ABC News 24 will be used across all platforms. The onscreen ticker will be driven by the online news division and ABC online news will become the News 24 website.
‘‘It’s critical for the ABC to have that ability to cover big, live national events as they happen,’’ Morris says. ‘‘It’s the job of the national broadcaster. So far that’s only been available on Sky.’’
But it’s not only the synergies between online and TV that are being recast in readiness for the channel’s launch.
The TV news market, contends Morris, has remained virtually unchanged for 30years. Compare that with other TV genres, such as drama or sport, whose coverage, style and scope, have changed radically, he says.
The biggest consumers of ABC online content are 25- to 40-year-olds, yet the demographic that watches the major bulletin at 7pm on ABC1 is older.
‘‘We have to present news in a way that fits those who want to consume it. We’re a very relaxed country, yet our news services are very formal,’’ Morris notes. ‘‘This is not just an opportunity to reassess our news reporting but to think about different production techniques.’’
To that end, the channel’s launch will also see subtle changes to the graphics and other elements of the 7pm bulletin.
For Uhlmann, who swapped his high-profile job on The 7.30 Report to work at the fledgling news channel, ‘‘ABC News 24 will not just be political talkback. Sky News has cornered the market of journos talking about Canberra. We will be talking to players more than journos.’’
He hopes the channel won’t just be about 24-hour news reporting and will become a place ‘‘for deeper discussion about public policy and where Australia is heading’’.
Uhlmann says the channel is an opportunity for the ABC to move beyond its footprint in Australia’s major cities and for regional stations to become significant contributors of content.
Unlike the children’s channel, ABC3, there is no additional funding for News 24. That has raised concerns within the rank and file of radio and TV reporters about the effect ABC News 24 will have on resourcing and job intensification, particularly in the regional newsrooms that will be called upon to provide fuller stories for the news channel.
Torney acknowledges there has been significant workplace change at the ABC during the past two years. ‘‘It has forced us to look at how we manage and use resources … We need to be very clear about our programming priorities; how we approach a story to ensure our outlets are covered quickly. We need to make sure how we structure this still allows journalists to get out there and gather news.’’
Others have doubts. Senior industry player and media buyer Steve Allen of Fusion Strategy, questions the ABC’s ability to provide a service any better than Sky News without providing significant extra resources, particularly in view of the way overseas bureaus have been scaled back during the past 10 to 20years. He points to the plethora of news-related programming that consists of journalists talking to other journalists.
‘‘Unless the channel provides something different, what’s the point?’’ he asks.
Torney won’t be drawn on questions of resources, the technical glitches on the night of the challenge to Kevin Rudd, or indeed the broadcaster’s priorities for news and current affairs, given ABC News 24 is the last of three digital channels to be launched on the ABC.
‘‘The introduction of News Breakfast,’’ she says, referring to ABC2’s morning show, ‘‘opened up opportunities for TV viewers wanting to tap into news.’’
While News Breakfast’s average audience of about 28,000 might seem modest, it’s regarded as decent for a specialised show in the multichannel environment (by contrast, First Edition and AM Agenda on Sky News attract averages of 14,000 and 20,000 each in the same timeslot and Sunrise (Seven) and Today (Nine) hover at a year-to-date average of 366,000 and 319,000 viewers respectively). ‘‘Our role is to remain relevant and as part of that we need to make sure our content is available when people want it,’’ Torney says.
‘‘We have a reputation for delivering quality news and what we can do is extend that reputation into a 24/7 news market.
‘‘I think there’s a great sense of ownership of the ABC, as there should be.
‘‘There is debate and discussion about our performance, our capacity to break news and that’s fabulous because it focuses what we do.’’
ABC News 24 launches tonight at 7.30pm on Channel 24.