In Conversation: Mark Scott on his decade in charge of the ABC

Monday, Apr 25, 2016, 08:14 PM | Source: The Conversation

Glyn Davis

Mark Scott has altered the ABC in profound ways. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Mark Scott is to step down as the ABC’s managing director in May following ten years in charge of the national broadcaster. These years have been marked by technological change and significant disruption in Australia’s media landscape.

Scott recently caught up with University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis to reflect on his time as ABC managing director. You can listen to listen to their discussion below in audio produced by The Policy Shop, a monthly public policy podcast based at the University of Melbourne.

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Mark Scott, the ABC’s outgoing managing director, cites the famous quote from Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard to encapsulate his time at the helm of the national broadcaster.

Scott joined the ABC in 2006 with major technological change about to hit. There was “no smartphone, no tablet, no fast broadband, no big streaming services, no social media”, he recalls.

Yet the wave was on its way. If ABC was to be “as loved and respected for future generations as it had been in the past”, concluded Scott, “then change was an inevitability”.

There are parallels for those in public universities. There, new technology is challenging long-standing practices. Yet as the ABC has demonstrated, it is possible to embrace change and thrive.

Scott’s leadership at ABC is recognised for innovation and new digital initiatives. Podcasts, online catch-up service iview and its 24-hour news channel, ABC News 24, have proved critical to sharing Australian content and building internal capacity within the ABC.

The right decisions may only look clear in retrospect. The decision to proceed with podcasting content was not initially obvious or strategic. Scott says:

It was really a bunch of people at Radio National saying “have a go at this”. It was an experiment, an innovative moment.

Downloads of ABC podcasts will reach 160 million this year.

iview, another success from Scott’s time at the ABC, started with a conversation about audience expectations:

With iview we didn’t know whether it would be a streaming service that would be important or a download-to-keep service that would be important. We just knew people wanted to catch up with programming.

Scott set two teams to work on the problem. This initially small but ambitious program now supports around 35 million iview plays a month.

Scott believes News 24 proved transformative for the ABC well beyond its initial remit. For Scott, it was almost a Trojan horse:

You were going to put this behind the wall of the ABC and the ABC would be different forever as a consequence.

The lessons from News 24 flowed back into state-based news broadcasting, and reshaped how the ABC now develops all news broadcasts, Scott says.

Again, there are interesting similarities with universities, as the campus embraces online learning. It requires new digital, pedagogical and production skills to deliver high-quality online content, yet public universities have proved skilled and sprightly.

At the University of Melbourne nearly one million students have now enrolled for a Massive Online Open Course, with content developed for an online setting also available for the classroom.

Digital media is ubiquitous. It allows international players to offer content directly to Australians, requiring the ABC to find a distinctive voice for its offerings.

As Scott notes, the ABC serves fewer than 25 million people who speak English, a language used by more than 700 million people worldwide. The challenges become more obvious as Netflix and other aggressive new media services seek out global markets.

Scott says:

The world’s content is going to flood in. You can listen to great radio from all around the world. But who will tell Australian stories? Who will have local voices on the ground, all around Australia? Who will celebrate Australian culture? I think that is the space the public broadcaster will increasingly need to play.

A global media accentuates the difficulties funding local media. Scott points to the challenges for newspapers groups like Fairfax, where he worked as a senior executive. The loss of traditional advertising income bodes ill for the traditional newsroom.

It is very hard for traditional newspaper companies to find a revenue model, either through advertising or through paywalls, and I think they are still challenged by that.

I don’t think it’s that they won’t survive. I think the challenge is what kind of services will the revenue model allow them to afford. And part of the pain at Fairfax is coming back from big staffing numbers that were funded by classified monopolies, to the reality that they face today.

It is almost easier for The Guardian in this country to build up from nothing than it is for Fairfax to come back from where they were.

Scott is clear: if the ABC is to survive such challenges, it will be sharper, more strategic and more relevant than ever before.

Scott is a thoughtful chief executive who has altered the ABC in profound ways to preserve its core mission as the place that tells Australian stories. As commercial rivals succumb to internet economics, only the ABC with its public funding can support a national newsroom and multiple channels. Maintaining the independence and public trust of such an institution is a significant responsibility for any managing director.

Scott will hand to Michelle Guthrie a much-transformed ABC – one that does the same things in very new ways.

The Conversation

Glyn Davis is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and host of The Policy Shop.

University of Melbourne Researchers