Inside Story

Big picture, few hilltops

Where is the ABC heading? Michelle Guthrie’s latest announcement doesn’t make the future much clearer

Margaret Simons 14 November 2017 1461 words

Paul Miller/AAP Image

There are really only two ways to organise a big media organisation. You do it either according to the platforms on which your content is delivered, or by the genres of content you are producing.

At different times over its history the ABC has tried both. Yet the determinant of success has never been the big-picture organisational chart; it’s been the internal communications, leadership culture and strategic vision.

This means that ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie’s big announcement yesterday, in which she opts firmly for organisation by genre, is probably not quite as important as it looks. The restructure might be a big change, but by itself it tells us little about her vision for public broadcasting, nor about her capacity to achieve it.

And, of course, restructures are necessarily disruptive and risky. The risk is that the organisation becomes so focused on its internals — dealing with entirely new lines of authority and ways of operating — that it loses its focus on audiences.

Having said all that, the core idea behind this restructure — that genres matter more in the new media world than platforms — has a compelling logic.

Not that it’s a new idea: in late 2011 and early 2012, Guthrie’s predecessor Mark Scott was considering just such a shake-up as part of a review called “Project 21,” which was examining how the organisation could remain relevant over the decade ahead.

By 2021, the review concluded, the ABC executive should be structured around a series of “hilltops” representing genres of content on which the ABC wanted to stake its continued claim to the public purse. Radio National would form the basis of an “ideas” hilltop, for example. Current affairs shows would be part of a “national conversation” hilltop, and so on.

Scott didn’t go ahead with the plan, although he largely agreed with it. Choosing the right moment in what was seen as a ten-year project was part of the problem, and weighing in the balance was the trenchant opposition of the existing content division heads, including radio director Kate Dundas and television director Kim Dalton.

Others among his executive were frustrated by his lack of action, and there was a general recognition when the baton passed to Guthrie that this was a difficult job still to be done.

We can see the remnants of the Project 21 thinking in Guthrie’s announcement, although she has chosen a much steeper organisational hierarchy, with just three big content divisions. This is in line with what most of the world’s broadcasters are doing, and it makes sense at a time when audiences access video and audio on televisions, computers and mobile phones without much caring whether it is a broadcast, a stream or a download.

There are also arguments against this kind of structure. Producing content for television and radio still involves specific and different skill sets. If your principal organisational structure is genre, then each area will presumably have to have a team further down the tree that holds those skills, or you will need a service division somewhere that shares its skills out. At the time of writing, the ABC has not released that level of detail.

Then you have to make it all work, and ensure that somebody is keeping an eye on your ratings and reach, communications between the divisions, your budget, the politics and your key editorial content decisions.

Once you think it all through, what might seem conceptually right and logical becomes much more complicated, and the benefits of one organisational model over another less clear.

So, having said all that, what will the newly structured ABC look like?

The ABC is using the word “teams” to describe the three big content-related organisational units in the new structure — a much cuddlier word than departments or divisions. It is also aspirational.

The success of this restructure depends on whether the “teams” live up to the term. Talk to any ABC insider and you will know that the fights between the old platform “silos” of radio, television and news have for many years epitomised the ABC at its worst, as everyone scrambled for scarce resources. “Seagulls fighting over a cup of chips at the beach,” as one former executive describes it. It’s nice to think that the restructure would fix that; but probably also naive.

The first new team is News, Analysis and Investigations. Given that the news and current affairs division has been creating content for all platforms for years, it will be the least disrupted part of the ABC under its existing head, the innovative and savvy Gaven Morris.

Guthrie also said that the recruitment of forty regional reporters, producers and presenters, announced in March this year, will be sped up. Pushing more reporters out into the regions is politically smart and right in principle. It is local and regional journalism that is suffering most as a result of the crisis in media business models. Addressing shortcomings in the commercial media is one of the reasons for the ABC’s claim on the taxpayer dollar.

But it will take more than a few junior graduates from journalism courses sitting in regional offices to alter the Sydney-centric culture of our national broadcaster. Under the structure currently in place, Fiona Reynolds as director of regional sits at the executive table with a specific remit to look after the regions. Reynolds will leave, with the current director of radio, Michael Mason, to head the second big team — Regional and Local — which includes “rural and regional teams, capital city and regional productions.” In other words, he will run everything that isn’t national, including local radio across the nation. It’s massive.

Mason’s job will still be largely about overseeing radio, since that is where the bulk of regional and local staff work — although presumably some promising but limply executed Mark Scott initiatives like ABC Open, in which producers are sent to the regions to help people tell their own stories, will also come under his remit.

The third team, and the most disrupted, is “Entertainment and Specialist.” It might as well be called the “everything else” division. It will include children’s content, music and creative development, factual and entertainment, drama, comedy and Indigenous programming. It will be headed up by the current director of television, David Anderson.

Anderson was one of a number of internal applicants for the job of managing director, and he and Michelle Guthrie were the only two to be interviewed at the last stage of the selection process. Incredibly, major talents such as Kate Dundas, former director of radio, were passed over without full interview. Anderson is a favourite of the board, and both his track record and his enormous new portfolio make him a man to watch.

And how will it actually work? Who will make the key decisions on Monday night television, for example, where the ABC has a line-up of news and current events shows like no other? Who will keep an eye on the ratings for Foreign Correspondent, and decide the budget? Who will decide whether to purchase Peppa Pig and manage the contracts and the schedule?

I understand there is to be a “distribution head” in each of the organisational units — a “fat controller” type, as one source described them — who will be in charge of pushing content out across the platforms and watching reach and impact.

There will also be a new Content Ideas Lab, responsible for experimentation. Over the past fifteen years, divisions called variously “Innovation,” “Digital Network” and other names du jour have repeatedly been either broken out to allow focus on change and experiment, or returned to the platform-based organisation units to encourage ownership and cohesion.

Guthrie’s announcement says the Content Ideas Lab will be responsible for “incubating initiatives to introduce ABC content to new audiences.” That could mean almost anything. And how will it work with the other genres?

To sum up, Guthrie is not wrong to reorganise. Something like this has been coming for a very long while. The test will be in the execution. More importantly, is she going to be a good managing director for the ABC? Incredibly, more than eighteen months after she took the top job, it is still too soon to say. She has yet to communicate either internally or externally what she is trying to achieve, or what she thinks publicly funded media should be doing in the decades ahead.

We know she wants the ABC to reach audiences who are not current ABC users. But to what purpose? How does it all fit together in the new media world, and why should future governments continue to invest?

Guthrie’s answers to these questions remain unclear, and today’s announcement doesn’t change that. ●