Two things occurred this week to make me ruminate on television. The first was the announcement that the ABC will be launching a fourth channel that will be a news channel, the second was yet another in the long running cases of a sports broadcast being dropped for the news.
Let's talk about the ABC 24/7 news channel first. The ABC is apparently using their High Definition channel for the service - which puts paid a bit to ideas that we were all hanging out to see our favourite TV in HD. They also said "The channel will commence with no additional funds from the Government for content. Significant changes the ABC has made to news and television production processes, taking advantage of new technology, will allow the broadcaster to reinvest in new programming."
That also makes sense - you can create a 24/7 news channel by repeating lots of stuff!
Meanwhile SkyNews has complained that this is a breach of the ABC charter, on the grounds that the charter is for the ABC to provide services that "commercial broadcasters are unwilling or unable to provide." Actually they err here, because the charter doesn't say that. It only says they need to take account of the commercial services before deciding if there is a need for a service.
The real question becomes whether a broadcasting service on pay TV can be considered the same thing as "commercial broadcast." Section 14 of the Broadcasting Services Act says a broadcasting service is a commercial service if it provides "programs that, when considered in the context of the service being provided, appear to be intended to appeal to the general public", and it provides programs "(i) are able to be received by commonly available equipment; and (ii) are made available free to the general public."
It might come as a shock to SkyNews - but they are NOT a commercial broadcast service! Hence a 24/7news service isn't currently provided by a commercial broadcaster, notwithstanding that both Nine and Seven (which are commercial broadcasters) are investors.
Poor Seven has copped a bit of flack over the ongoing problem of sports events that run over time. In this case it was a match at the Australian Open between Sam Stosur and Serena Williams that started late and hence had only just got going at standard news broadcast time. This match mind you was not the only for which Seven cut to the News.
Two letters in the SMH criticised the decision. One suggested it was sexist, as it was a women's match, the other wondered why they couldn't move the sports to 7Two.
The sexist line also was echoed by the Sports Minister who today criticised the overall percentage of coverage of women's sport and the trivialisation of coverage that focussed on fashion (without a word about how much male sport coverage is full of equal irrelevancy about the sportsman as anything other than sportsman - did I hear Tiger Woods mentined?)
Richard Hinds writing in the SMH suggests;
It follows that if the network which has paid for the privilege of broadcasting the event loses faith in the product, as Seven did when deciding to abandon the heavily promoted Serena Williams-Samantha Stosur match on Monday to cross to the news and Today Tonight, Australian tennis has a significant problem.
The problem with that trite analysis is that Seven's News draws an audience of 1.5 million, the tennis something like 800,000. What are the 750,000 people who want to watch Seven's news supposed to do? Nine does EXACTLY the same thing when test cricket ticks past 6 pm.
These are rational programming decisions, and not a problem inherent in the sports themselves.
The suggestion by Shona Kirchen in her letter to the SMH about the potential use of the multi-channel is a good one. But the facts are that sports that are on the anti-siphoning list, that is, that are important enough that the government wants them available "free to air" aren't allowed to be shown on the multi-cast channels. Go figure!
You'd think that at least the rules could allow for the sport to shift to the multi-cast channel on the condition that the event runs past its "scheduled" finish time. To ensure "scheduled" finish times aren't manipulated you could have a simple rule about what percentage is shown on the primary channel.
But you see, this is just another part of the politics that plays out between pay TV and free to air TV.
As for the sports minister's suggestion that coverage of sport is sexist, the figure she uses is the proportion of time used to cover women's sport in the sport coverage in news and current affairs programs. That was 9% for all, and only 11% for the ABC with its charter. This unfortunately isn't a figure on live sports coverage. That would, I suspect, be even more weighted.
There are many causes of this, and in part it remains audience demand. Though as I know from some theatre engagement a responsibility of the presenter is "audience development" - educating the audience on new things. The Minister's only conclusion is;
Surely in 2010 we as sports lovers can send a message that we appreciate women’s sport and abilities irrespective of the darnned frocklett. With only 9% of coverage on women’s sport I reckon we can do better - and I for one want to know more of what we’re missing.
I can think of a few more things. They would include greater promotion on the ABC of the women's sport it does have on its schedule. Some encouragement for the ABC in increasing the share for women's sport. Possibly a government sponsored program for additional media training for women in sport (though I'd note that increasingly it is the females who are making media careerrs out of the former sportspeople).