A rare medium
Tell a broadcaster today that they ought to be guided by standards first created in 1922 by John Reith - and in the context of the stuffy old "Aunty" BBC, what's more - and they'll likely scoff in derision. Yet engage them on the state of broadcast journalism today and you'll probably hear a lament of shrinking newsrooms, increasing centralisation of news gathering (and a consequent loss of the ability to focus on the myriad of local issues which are important to people), an increasing drive to "tabloidisation" of broadcast media wherein "reality" shows (which are anything but) take precedence over news and current affairs.
In response - if they can be bothered responding at all - the media owners will point to the delcining ratings for a show like Campbell Live (TV3, NZ) as evidence that the audience don't want seriousness any longer.
That's debateable. If we start with the assumption Australians are no less engaged with civics than are New Zealanders, what's happening in Australia is that yes, its excellent current affairs shows - Insiders, the 7.30 Report and Four Corners - are indeed losing audience (14, three and three percent respectively) on the flagship ABC1 channel. Even the main 7 pm news bulletin has fallen eight percent.
But... Australia is a land of multiple time zones. Only in the eastern states do these programs screen live on ABC1. Someone in Western Australia, for instance, is informed of what's happening in Canberra some two hours after their counterparts in NSW and Victoria. When the eastern states shift to daylight saving and WA does not, the lag stretches to three hours, and Queenslanders, who've rejected the time change, also fall behind.
It seems the audience isn't turning away from news and current affairs but in fact are not prepared to wait, because ratings for these programs, which screen live across the country on the ABC's News 24 channel, are up, as is the use of its catch-up platform, iview. Added to that is an unknowable number of people watching time-shifted television using a PVR (unless they happen to be one of the few hundred households who also have a 'People Meter').
What also seems to be overlooked in the talk of raw numbers - even if it's talk of certain demographics vs other demographics - is whether the audience is sat slumped on the couch while a wave of cooking and home renovation and dancing shows wash over them, or whether they're sitting forward, engaged with what they're seeing. Australian media analysis site mUmbrella looked into that, and headlined their results: "#QandA dwarfs reality TV show mentions despite huge audience differences":
Of course a non-commercial channel such as the ABC can't capitalise on that level of engagement, but a commercial broadcaster could. No matter what you're selling, having your message delivered to an engaged, alert, receptive and reactive audience must surely be an attractive proposition, even if that audience is somewhat smaller in number.
Perhaps more people want to watch other people knock down walls than want to watch politicians fielding their fellow citizens' questions on issues which affect us all. But there's still a market for serious analysis, and it's a market of the kind of people quite difficult to reach for commercial broadcasters yet who are likely to have higher-than-average spending power due to their education and employment.
So for the networks, the choice seems stark: join the fight for a share of the unengaged and hope your advertisers' messages motivate them to action better than your content is able to, or accept a lesser number of viewers and sell them to advertisers as an engaged market, tuned to respond to what they're seeing and hearing. And in the process, return to the values Reith espoused some 90 years ago.
I know which path I'd follow.