Sweeping changes to ABC Radio programming are being fuelled by the broadcaster’s desire to secure a thus-far-elusive younger audience. But can it be done? By Michael Bodey.

Restructuring the ABC

A scene from The Doctor Blake Mysteries.
A scene from The Doctor Blake Mysteries.

The ABC has a demographic problem. And it knows it.

A recent major research project for the public broadcaster divided its viewers and listeners into the kind of archetypes so loved by digital types – “influencer”, “me-timer”, “binger”, “innovator” and so on – and those derided in the digital world – “time-filler”, “company seeker”.

The different consumers were graphed in four quadrants, divided by axes representing engagement and emotion. Unsurprisingly, the quadrant of actively engaged and emotional users was dubbed the area of greatest value and growth potential for the ABC. The quadrant represented by reactivity and mere utility was marked as the least value and, on the analysis, represented by a dead fish.

Therein lies a problem for the ABC’s broader “Digital Ecosystem Project” – the initiative aimed at delivering a more relevant ABC. The “dead fish” quadrant of consumers is the ABC’s current audience.

Last week’s mass changes to the public broadcaster’s radio programming came shortly after news the key ABC news radio brands The World Today and PM would be halved, late-night TV current affairs program Lateline would be axed, and ABC2 would be rebranded as ABC Comedy.

For traditionalists, it felt like a storming of the citadel and, on cue, a raft of former Radio National executives wrote in Fairfax Media that RN’s role “is under serious threat” and its millions of listeners “may have their democratic rights infringed”.

ABC Radio’s head of spoken content Judith Whelan responded by saying the ABC is not “dumbing down”. Later, she clarified what had been unsaid about the ABC’s direction: “The ABC has a charter responsibility to meet the needs of all Australians, not just those who have been long and loyal listeners of the ABC.”

Of course, digital disruption has upended all media models and the ABC is hardly alone in trying to attract elusive younger consumers while ignoring the fact that increasing life expectancy means the baby boomer and Gen X cohort will bulge. The question facing the ABC, however, becomes: will it survive by saying goodbye to the audience it has, in search of a younger audience it might never have?

Research has long shown, essentially, that the ABC has hold of young Australians until they’re in their early 20s, and gets them back when they’re older. It has ever been thus. In the 1970s, Countdown was programmed partly because the ABC board was concerned “Aunty” was too old. More recent research says people aren’t coming back to the ABC as readily.

TV and radio ratings show the ABC doesn’t capture 25- to 50-year-old Australians, and increasingly its audience is bulked up by people aged 55-plus. For instance, the Seven, Nine and Ten networks had primetime shares among 18- to 49-year-olds of 23 to 30 per cent this year. The ABC’s share was 11 per cent and static.

The ABC’s highest-rating series, nationally, were the older-skewing British dramas Death in Paradise, Doc Martin and Vera, only separated by the local drama The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan.

Yet Doctor Blake is symptomatic of the demographic dilemma. It averaged 1.44 million viewers nationally per  episode in its fifth series, yet the ABC has dumped it, only for the Seven Network to pick it up. Admittedly, Doctor Blake’s cost of more than $1 million an episode and ineligibility for government co-funding made it easier for the ABC to say goodbye, particularly when Doc Martin earned the same audience for a fraction of the cost.

Yet Seven is rapt with the acquisition, seeing it as the drama equivalent to live sport, a rare show that will deliver a guaranteed audience of likely one million-plus viewers each week.

The series was totemic for ABC management concerned about its greying audience. Indeed, production staff became aware the ABC’s most senior management wanted to get rid of the “dreadful” show. Nevertheless, its success gave ABC TV the imprimatur to experiment elsewhere with edgier, younger-skewing dramas, including Glitch and Cleverman. So the ABC frees up some production cash yet loses one million viewers a week.

Similarly, ABC Radio loses audience share after allowing another popular ABC “brand” to walk, albeit at retirement age.

Last week, ABC Radio Melbourne breakfast host Red Symons left his popular program after 15 years when management suggested it might be time for him to be redeployed. The 68-year-old, who had returned somewhat slowly from a head injury earlier this year, didn’t entertain the discussion.

Symons leaves with a healthy 12 per cent market share, some proportion of which will undoubtedly move to 3AW’s dominant Ross and John or even Triple M’s Eddie McGuire.

Symons’ departure was pre-empted by the ABC’s pairing across its capital city stations of male and female hosts in the breakfast shift. There was little chance Symons would have worked with a co-host.

Internally, ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie’s team has been transparent about the demographic dilemma. About a year ago, staff began to be shown research that pre-warned them of a real problem, for which Triple J was only a stopgap solution. Demographic holes had opened throughout the TV and radio schedules.

The digital channel ABC2 was planned to be TV’s Triple J equivalent, bringing younger audiences to its edgier content while allowing the main channel to play broad and older. Little could be achieved on less than $7 million a year though. Worse still, it was the unknown victim of the Turnbull government’s cuts to the ABC budget in 2014.

A plan to supercharge ABC2 with tens of millions of dollars in extra investment was gazumped by the cuts and the channel has floundered since before being rebranded as ABC Comedy this month. Even worse, SBS filled the gap for younger audiences with splashier and edgier shows including Go Back to Where You Came From and The Handmaid’s Tale, which it acquired after the nimbler SBS management invested in the series at script stage.

The ABC news division appears to have been most alert to the writing on the wall. Radio’s 2018 programming changes will effectively inculcate news throughout the local radio schedule while halving the length of the hour-long PM and The World Today shows. PM’s audience has dropped by a quarter in the past five years, yet there are signs of life elsewhere.

While news takes a short-term hit for cutting some brands, it will become omnipresent across ABC schedules because a younger audience does not believe in waiting for a 7pm bulletin or tomorrow’s newspaper for information. They need it now.

The News Radio channel is seen as a major low-cost success, with listeners dipping in and out regularly while responding to news alerts on digital devices. That desire for immediacy hurt the late-night Lateline, although the biggest problem in television appears to be 7.30.

Many staff complain it is weighing down the schedule, despite a year of strong and weighty news breaking. The numbers are clear: not only does it leave the 8pm slot with a sizeably smaller audience than it receives from ABC News, but well in excess of 80 per cent of its audience is aged over 50.

Among the many metrics used by the ABC, the proportion of viewers “under 50” has gained currency. ABC News hovers around 15 per cent but it delivers a huge daily audience, while the highly regarded Gruen is above 30 per cent.

Viewership on the on-demand platform iView skews younger and the digital channel Double J is a quiet success in retaining thirty- and fortysomethings after Triple J. Yet digital viewing and listening doesn’t approach linear consumption. Up to 95 per cent of radio listening is still via broadcast, which poses another dilemma in the rush to digital.

RN’s incredible success developing and dominating the podcast space is effectively its own death warrant because it suggested to management listeners want the content, just not during live broadcast. RN staffers vehemently disagree, although the squeeze will be on; it is the best resourced of all radio networks.

No doubt there is a paradigm shift in ABC programming, with a gamble on a digital-led future that might attract Generation X and Y while simultaneously pissing off the baby boomers. It has split staff, with some holdouts unwilling – or unable – to change what they believe isn’t broken.

Incredibly, ABC Radio Melbourne Mornings host Jon Faine hasn’t aligned with the national format changes but is understood to have been told The Conversation Hour will be networked into Melbourne from 2019.

If talk titan Faine gets with the program, the ABC will truly have been disrupted, but will new audiences emerge from the disruption?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2017 as "In search of the youth".

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Michael Bodey is a media journalist and the author of three books on film and television.

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