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Andrew Probyn wasn’t actually in the room, but he was an unmissable presence at the Midwinter Ball in Canberra on Wednesday night. In speech after speech, the former national political editor of the ABC was the name on everyone’s lips at the annual shindig thrown by federal parliament’s press gallery.

For once, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton were in furious agreement, as both took aim at sweeping changes announced by the ABC a week ago that saw Probyn’s position – and hence Probyn – made redundant.

The ABC made its national political editor Andrew Probyn redundant last week.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“Like many here tonight I thought the recent treatment of Andrew Probyn was a disgrace,” Dutton said. “I think the ABC should be ashamed of its actions.”

“Good to see the ABC here tonight. You guys have had a bit of a week,” the PM joked, adding that “the new funding arrangements are working out really well”, a reference to the increased budget for the ABC, and the commitment to five-year funding cycles rather than three, that were supposed to make the broadcaster more stable, not less.

He also took aim at cuts to other parts of the organisation, and its curious priorities. “No money for a political editor, no money for an arts division, but enough money for The Weekly to have multiple episodes of a segment called ‘Albo’s f—ing dog’,” the PM said.

The comments might have been dismissed as mere insider jokes were it not for the fact that the ABC’s “proposal for change” released last week points to a crisis at the organisation that is being felt well beyond the nation’s capital.

The ABC claimed in its five-year plan, unveiled two weeks ago, that the document was “based on the belief that a strong and capable ABC for Australia is as important as ever” and that “the ABC must continue to evolve with, and for, Australia”.

It all sounded reasonable and optimistic enough.

But in a companion document titled Background to the Plan, the scale of the challenges the broadcaster faces were made clear.

“The ABC is at a crossroads where it needs to balance the replacement of broadcast equipment with investment in digital platforms,” the authors wrote. “Maintaining broadcast operations while funding modernisation will be a critical challenge for the corporation.“

Aunty agony: Some traditional ABC jobs will need to disappear to make way for new ones more fitted to these emerging ways of connecting.

It noted that evolutions in the way content is created and consumed – including on and for social media – were having a huge impact on the ABC’s ability to connect with audiences. ”Recently, it has introduced new roles and skills around reporting, social media distribution, and video production,” the background document notes.

“There is more change to come. More established tasks and methods will need to cease or be scaled back to allow for the new workflows required for the digital media environment.”

There are challenges in every aspect of the broadcaster’s operation: technology, skills, content creation, distribution, and marketing. “The ABC faces an increasingly complex operating environment that will continue to make long-term planning difficult. New platforms and technologies will continue to emerge and potentially disrupt the market … the ABC will need to balance its resources between serving current audiences and reaching new ones.

In other words, some traditional ABC jobs – like national political editor and its arts editors – will need to disappear to make way for new ones more fitted to these emerging ways of connecting.

The assumption from management appears to be that the 120 positions made redundant are unfit for this new age, and that by implication an Andrew Probyn, for instance, cannot adapt – or create content that might be adapted – to suit it.

That, says one Canberra bureau veteran who knows Probyn well, is patently ridiculous.

“Chasing a younger audience doesn’t mean you should get rid of the political editor,” the journalist said. “You need the content first, then you work out how to carve it up for different platforms and audiences.”

There’s a sense among some at the ABC that Probyn may have been axed because he’s not an easy character to manage.

“There’s the old adage in business that you never waste a crisis,” says one senior ABC figure. “I’m sure Andrew was a bit of a thorn in the side of management, and these changes presented an opportunity to remove that irritant.”

“He’s in your face, he tells you what he thinks, and that is clearly not what the ABC wants,” Probyn’s Canberra colleague concurs. “He would push back against any crazy agenda they were trying to push.”

Another ABC staffer pointed out Probyn had been an early adopter of the digital strategy, spearheading the short-lived YouTube series The Brief, which took viewers behind-the-scenes at Parliament House.

While Probyn’s removal has soaked up most of the headlines in this latest wave of redundancies, other changes have left many in the ABC scratching their hands about the organisation’s priorities. News reporters were left bewildered after management announced it was scrapping state-based news bulletins on Sunday night, the most viewed night of the week. Others in the ABC question how seriously the organisation is committed to its “pivot to digital” when it scrapped its sole digital arts editor.

Even the ABC’s most widely respected investigative programs – Four Corners and Background Briefing – weren’t spared. Staff in other teams, including daily current affairs program 7.30, have been targeted for redundancies but are still unsure who is being shown the door. ABC redundancies have infamously become known as “the hunger games” because staff are pitting against one another in a battle to keep their jobs.

Few in the organisation disagree that the broadcaster has to get better at attracting new audiences, but many question how it will achieve that goal with morale dealt such a big blow given this wave of cuts, and the continual slashing of resources from programs with the biggest cut-through, like Four Corners, which have become synonymous with the organisation’s brand.

The ABC’s dilemma can be reduced to a simple equation: the existing audience is ageing, and the younger audience with which it might be replenished is simply not coming on board.

In part, that is because linear television – where much of the ABC’s resources have traditionally been focused – no longer holds the appeal it did (which is why the five-year plan advocates a reallocation away from linear to digital). Time spent watching free-to-air broadcast television is in decline, and many younger viewers simply don’t watch at all (catch-up viewing and broadcast video on demand is a different matter, though the ABC’s success even in this space is predominantly with older viewers).

ABC Managing Director David Anderson (foreground) with news director Justin Stevens, two of the key figures in the five-year plan.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

In this age of endless competition for attention, all free-to-air television broadcasters have to deal with shrinking audiences. But even the most cross-generational offerings on the ABC aren’t immune. Take Gruen, for instance, whose 2009 iteration The Gruen Transfer averaged 1.3 million viewers in the five capital cities alone. The most recent episode of the show, broadcast on Wednesday, pulled roughly one-third that number, 436,000. Radio audiences are similarly in decline.

No less a figure than Leigh Sales, former host of flagship current affairs show 7.30, identified the scale of the issue to this masthead this week.

“I know the way I consume media has changed so drastically – I don’t watch anything now on a schedule, I literally timeshift every single thing that I watch,” Sales said. “We have to keep adapting and evolving and changing if we want to remain relevant to the audience. So while it’s always sad to see things change – and change is always hard – it’s change or death basically in the media landscape.”

To reach younger audiences, the ABC needs to change, and that means to go where those viewers are – principally the plethora of platforms via which they consume their content, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and, increasingly, TikTok (which is the only one of the major social media platforms, the background paper argues, that has not plateaued). And that means finding people who can work to those media.

“The ABC will need to scale back traditional broadcast services over time and invest more in content and distribution aimed at audiences for its own and third-party digital platforms,” says the background paper.

One of the greatest challenges facing the ABC right now is the generational divide that sees its established older audience resisting efforts to make the organisation more inclusive – to appeal to younger audiences – as “wokeism”.

News Corp – particularly The Australian newspaper and Sky News, which has outgrown the limitations of its pay TV status by finding a foothold on regional free-to-air television, airport lounges and screens on petrol station bowsers – relentlessly attacks the broadcaster on this basis.

Younger audiences, meanwhile, continue to resist the lure of the national broadcaster.

The task ahead of the ABC is enormous. It needs to cater to its existing but declining older audience, and to maintain its decreasingly relevant traditional modes of distribution (AM radio, linear broadcast television), while developing the technological and distribution means – not to mention the actual content – to reach an as-yet largely hypothetical younger audience. It can’t not do either, though attempting to do both puts it under enormous financial, management and operational strain.

“While the ABC continues to improve the value and appeal of its digital content, products, and services, it must continue to cater to important audiences for free-to-air television,” says the background paper. “Traditional broadcast services are still popular across some older audience segments … the ABC seeks to maintain such services for Australians unable to access internet services.”

In short, the five-year plan captures the ABC in a moment in which it is staring at an abyss of irrelevance and preparing to take a leap of faith. It can’t be sure where it will land, but the ground on which it was standing is crumbling fast, and it has no choice but to jump.

In this, it is far from alone. But in having identified the challenges so clearly it has at least shown it is willing to make a move. Whether this five-year plan is the right one remains to be seen.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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