There’s a heavy sigh from viewers in Asia as Canberra loses an important plank in its soft power.
When the final whistle blew on Hawthorn’s thumping victory over the Sydney Swans in this year’s Aussie Rules grand final it also sounded the death knell for Australia Network (AN), the television channel that delivered Australian programs across much of Asia and beyond.
As anticipated, the network was shut down shortly after the final due to government spending cuts that were delivered by the conservative Liberal Party after its victory at last year’s election.
However, the $223 million bill over 10 years was considered small by many who felt the network’s ability to show-off the best of Australia to a potential audience reach of billions of people was worth the money.
Lindsay Murdoch, Southeast Asian Correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote, “A stake will be driven through our souls” with the closure of the network and asked why the national broadcaster ABC was not screening across Asia.
Richard Broinowski, former Australian ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and Cuba, and former general manager of Radio Australia, echoed those sentiments and said projecting an image of the country abroad was too serious a matter to be left to commercial interests.
“I think it’s a short-sighted and stupid decision. Australia needs all the profile it can get in Asia, and this is a move in the opposite direction,” he said.
The running of AN fell under Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and despite popular beliefs to the contrary among expatriate Australians the service was not designed for them. AN’s target audience was locals, in their home country.
“The satellite TV market is so crowded. There are 200 channels available. Every country in Asia, including the poorest, have at least one or two 24-hour news services, and everyone is struggling,” said Bruce Dover former AN Chief Executive Officer and now a broadcasting consultant. “So what were we providing?”
He agreed with the sentiments of many viewers, angered by AN’s closure, but he added the decision was complicated by costs and politics.
He said the latest figures showed the service was drawing about 250,000 viewers a month and the US$20 million a year it cost would be more effectively spent on online digital programing that could also be produced in local languages.
“Every international broadcaster is having its problems at the moment. The real play in Asia is mobile digital,” he said. “The grand colonial view of a pan-world service has died.”
Australian Network will apparently be replaced Australia Plus, which will provide a six-hour block of television programming. However, details remain sketchy. They say it will be “available online and on-demand, on television and radio.”
Dover said there was merit to the argument of transmitting the ABC 24-hour news channel and charging perhaps US$5 or US$10 a month to view, but this too had problems because it was not as simple as just transmitting the same signal that is broadcast in Australia.
The bulk of ABC programming is based on exclusive rights in Australia, which means the ABC was not in a position to screen internationally, particularly programs acquired from the BBC in Britain, PBS in the United States, or Al Jazeera in Doha.
Nevertheless, he said Australian expats numbered about one million, of whom 200,000 might be expected to subscribe to a service that could fall under the ABC’s charter to provide for Australians abroad.
Independence would be key. AN programming was dictated by DFAT, which stipulated dedicated hours for English learning, drama, kids programs, news and current affairs, as well as the often derided Aussie soap operas.
“… and that was part of the problem,” Dover said.
Hong Kong-based Mike Hoare, Managing Director of The Blueprint Communications Foundry, said AN had been widely criticized for showing too much football from the Australian Football League (AFL) and ABC-produced programs.
“And while there’s truth to that, the current affairs and news coverage was second to none.”
“Some of the coverage, depth of insight and commentary on Asian affairs was a match for any serious news organization. So cutting Australia Network was disappointing for many reasons but I think the Australian government has squandered a scarce opportunity to be an important, and independent, media voice and play a role in shaping the region.”
In Cambodia, American and co-founder of The Phnom Penh Post Michael Hayes said his compatriots abroad were avid viewers of AN and in particular Four Corners, Landline, Barry Cassidy and Insiders, Q&A and Poh’s Kitchen.
“That TV channel shows you can have crucial debate about issues that matter without killing each other,” he said, before singing the theme song from the nightly soap opera Neighbors.
Importantly, AN was a rare avenue to push Australia’s view of the world, and this mattered in times of trouble. In 2000 and in early 2001 speculation was rife that then Prime Minister John Howard was prepared to cut the service due to budget pressures.
But he relented after al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden launched his attacks on New York and Washington, in September, 2001.
Howard was in the United States during those attacks and quickly realized the value – and public relations advantages – of controlling a television network with an international scope as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia unfolded.
Dover added that Australian expats had made themselves heard before the service was disconnected, and he said they got what they wanted.
“Their driving message was the AFL, it’s the footy. They can get their news from The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age online but they want to watch Collingwood and Hawthorn play live.”
But audiences are fickle and the content did not always sit well with Peter Miles, a Hong Kong-based doctor from New South Wales. He said he was regular television news watcher but even that changed as the network became dominated by the AFL, Australia’s local football code.
“My lack of a regular look at the Australian Network came when they said that the only games that would be covered were from the AFL. No Rugby was covered at all. Very parochial.”