Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rupert to the rescue - his little-known role in the creation of ABC News 24

Australia's new 24 hour news channel

Here's how it happened as I remember it, and I was at ABC TV at the time and following things closely:

Telstra and NewsCorp set up a jointly-owned company called Foxtel, and later brought in other owners.

In 1995 they were looking for a 24-hour news channel as part of their offering.

The ABC put in a tender which was verbally accepted.

But it wasn't an ABC-only tender. It was the ABC in partnership with Fairfax which produces the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and other newspapers.

The venture spent a fortune on a beautiful new studio-newsroom at Gore Hill in Sydney which I toured... a working newsroom with computer editing and robotic cameras (which unnervingly had no viewfinders) - all way ahead of its time for 1995.

It set up live broadcast points from Fairfax newsrooms and money market dealing rooms etc, hired Katrina Lee and John Lombard as anchors, got Weather Bureau presenters to rehearse and work for free and actually produced weeks of test broadcasts that were beamed into Parliament House in Canberra.

(ABC news staff were generally wary of the whole thing - it involved a partnership with a commercial competitor.)

Then Rupert said 'no'.

Legend has it it was something an ABC executive said, implying that the deal wasn't final and the venture might go on the Foxtel competitor OptusVision.

Another legend is that he was upset about a forthcoming or just-broadcast Four Corners program about him.

And another is that the argument was about price. He asked a consortium of commercial TV stations to tender for a bare bones service, which they did at a fraction of the price, and named it Sky News Australia.

Rupert probably also didn't want to give a leg-up to two competitors.

But he did say no, and Telstra backed him - leading to the absurd situation where a government-owned carrier refused to carry the government broadcaster.

The ABC and Fairfax wrote off the expenditure, the staff were redeployed or terminated, the equipment sold and the building closed down.

(And the experience was sucked into a memory hole.  Last year an editorial in The Australian was able to claim that the ABC had lacked the foresight to do what Sky News Australia had done.  If only the editorial writer had known!  It wasn't the foresight it lacked, it was the ability.)

Fast forward to 2010.

Sky News Australia is quite good at what it does.  And now the ABC is about to launch a free 24-hour news channel without a commercial partner to make its unmatched resources available all the time to all Australians.

Good outcome, eh?

Were it not for Rupert, the new ABC service would be restricted to those Australians with pay-TV and would have compromised the ABC by partnering it with Fairfax.

Well done. And thanks.

"Independent, accurate, always there."

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