Looking to a Digital Future

Thoughts on the New ABC

1The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is in the midst of significant change as a result of budgetary pressures from the government and the challenge of the oncoming digital age. Lack of funding and dwindling resources have forced the ABC to shut down many of its regional services and to outsource many of its formerly in-house productions. However, there do appear some ways in which the ABC might meet, as the rhetoric goes, "the challenge of the digital era".

2Traditionally, the role of the ABC has included the provision of comprehensive coverage of, and service for, the whole of Australia, including regions that would be economically unfeasible for commercial operations to penetrate. Recently, however, budgetary cuts have eroded this role substantially, with the axing of state based current affairs and the cessation of Radio Triple J's planned expansion into regional Australia. The Internet has provided a potential, if problematic, stop-gap solution, through the launch of the ABC's online news service.

3Internet based news solutions have few of the production-end overheads of the television service. There are no expensive studio set ups, no presenters, no cameras, just text that can be quickly keyed into the system and formatted for instantaneous, non-linear delivery. I should note at this point that currently, this "delivery" is in the passive sense of the word: users must search out the content and download it onto their machines. In Internet jargon, this is called "pull" technology. New technologies being developed promise to "push" the content automatically and directly to a user's computer.

4The ABC's implementation, taking advantage of all these benefits, is text-based, comprehensive, updated constantly, and easy to use. Currently, however, delivery of Internet-based content is tied to the existing phone network, and with most Internet service providers based in state capitals, regional Internet access is hindered by the cost of long-distance calls. The potential exists, nonetheless, for the ABC to achieve truly national coverage by methods that bypass existing structures.

5The planned shift by Australian TV networks to digital transmission has the potential to enable new possibilities for public broadcasting. A digital infrastructure could allow information and programming to be cheaply produced at the local level, then recompiled centrally and redistributed across the country. The convergence of computer and television will enable a greater variety of content to be sent to the home -- and, possibly, sent back out again in an altered form.

6Such a transformation of the way we experience television may well alter the concept of public broadcasting beyond recognition, if not render it obsolete. However, these possibilities, although reasonable given projected advances in technology, so far largely remain fantasy due to the debate over regulation between the Federal government and the commercial networks. It remains to be seen whether the ABC will be able to take advantage of the new opportunities.