TWICE or thrice a year, having been slated to perform some chore or other at some event or other, I will be approached by a person from a TV production company asking for permission to film the talk or interview or panel discussion. This in itself is not unusual; what is unusual is what happens if the video is to be made for the ABC.
In that case I will be told to expect nothing in the way of a fee. The explanation given is that the ABC is Australia's national broadcaster and therefore does not pay. The production company will excuse itself by telling me that because it is a matter of ABC policy not to pay contributors of program material, its hands are tied. I reply that it is my policy never to work for nothing. That is usually the end of the matter, unless the person resorts to whingeing and badgering. One or two have turned up at speaking engagement after speaking engagement for months on end, demanding the right to appropriate my intellectual property. This is all the more galling at a time when Australia brags of being a boom economy that escaped the global financial crisis and thumbs its nose at Europe and America writhing in the grip of austerity. It may be the case that the production companies are misrepresenting the ABC; in that case the ABC should do something about it.
The ABC received about $1.18 billion from Australian taxpayers last year. This sounds like an awful lot of money and, for what consumers of ABC product can expect, it is. Midsomer Murders, New Tricks, Poirot and Marple are all very highly finished ITV dramas, which may be worth watching repeatedly. Run-of-the-mill BBC fodder like Who Do You Think You Are?, Grand Designs, Grand Designs Revisited and Antiques Master certainly is not, especially if it can be had on subscription from the BBC pay TV channel, UKTV. Australians overseas looking for Australian product have to plumb the depths of cable channels to find anything, and usually it's all too obvious why it's not featuring on terrestrial television at prime time. All the leading DVD titles in ABC shops are British: Doctor Who, Yes Minister, Absolutely Fabulous, Downton Abbey and now Death in Paradise.The Straits didn't go around the world; Death in Paradise is doing the rounds instead. People all over the world watched Rumpole of the Bailey; they are not watching Rake. Nevertheless the ABC has commissioned a second series, which began airing on Thursday.
As a budget for an Australian national broadcaster, $1.18 billion is entirely inadequate. The population of Australia, at about 23 million, is more than a third of the British population of about 62 million. The BBC raises its budget through the licence fee which is set by the government; its budget this year is £4.74 billion, which is about $7.3 billion; one-third of that is $2.4 billion, so when it comes to the investment in a national broadcaster, Australians are being seriously short-changed. Half-price doesn't mean better value.
The difference is not simply one of scale. The BBC is run as a business; the ABC thinks of itself as a public service. The BBC seeks to generate programs that have a guaranteed world market and therefore goes all-out for co-production deals that make the impossible possible. Its natural history series are made in conjunction with the Discovery Channel; not only are they fabulous, they have a shelf life of generations. They have transformed cultural expression, inspiring ballets, opera and paintings. Australia meanwhile features in cut-price compilations of misleading drivel about the world's most dangerous animals. Putting together the Life on Earth series took 30 years all told. That's the difference. It's the vision thing.
The ABC should not be sending people around the world scavenging for the rights to substandard material shot on a single frame by a single camera at a public event where the speaker isn't even addressing the camera. A talk is not a TV show; where there are real participants in a real encounter the ABC has no licence to eavesdrop. Writers regularly contribute material to the BBC and they are paid for it - not much but something. Parsimony is to be expected but refusal to pay anything at all is contemptuous. Australians have less need to beg than any other nation on earth; they should be ashamed to be caught doing it.