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The ABC is already filled with ads, so what's the fuss adding a few more?

By Michael McGirr - posted Friday, 27 February 2004

I have every reason to be grateful to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) . I live in regional Australia and we'd all die of boredom without Radio National. This is one part of the world where a farmer may discourse knowledgeably on poetic theory and poets know something about commodity prices. This is not necessarily because the farmers and poets spend a lot of time talking to each other. It is because we all spend hours in the car listening to the radio.

My affection and gratitude for the ABC is genuine. It has been one of the most formative cultural institutions in my life. For this, many thanks. Besides, the ABC had the good taste to broadcast a book of mine last year. It first went to air in the middle of the weekday morning when I discovered that half my friends did very little at work. It was repeated in the small hours when I discovered that the other half didn't sleep. Aunty has extraordinary reach.

But I do have a bone to pick with her.


There is a lot of malarkey about advertising on the ABC. We are told there is none. This is a myth. In fact there is plenty. It is just that it's all for the ABC, or at least for something connected to the ABC. The self-promotion of the ABC has reached saturation levels. It used to be a challenge to get to the toilet between programmes in the evening on ABC TV. It's now possible to have a bath. I have come reluctantly to the view that if there has to be so much advertising on the ABC, it may as well get paid for it. For one thing, this would vary the range of advertisements.

It would also be fairer to businesses, such as publishers and retailers, which compete with the ABC. The ABC has a large audience, which listens to or watches little else. I am part of it. It also runs a chain of bookshops. It must surely count as unfair competition when that audience is exposed exclusively to the enticements of only one chain.

There is an absurd situation at the moment in which ABC Sport avoids calling the Pura Cup, which used to be known as the Sheffield Shield, by its name because it doesn't want to advance the commercial interests of the sponsor. Yet during this year’s VB Series, which the ABC referred to snootily as the one-day international competition, ABC Radio played a parody of Victoria Bitter's most famous advertisement over and over again. The point of this silly advertisement was to tell listeners that their enjoyment of the cricket was not being interrupted by silly advertisements. Frankly, I would have found the real VB ad less irritating and less hypocritical.

In the last week both Amanda Keller and Paul McDermott have launched new programmes on ABC TV, one about pop culture and the other about dancing. I wish them well. But by the time they were broadcast I had sat through so much repetitive publicity that I couldn't bring myself to watch them. When I heard Keller interviewed on local radio, I was annoyed that what was really an advertisement was actually being advertised before she came on as an interview. The ABC runs advertisements for its advertisements. Whatever is on TV at night will be advertised on radio during the day, the ads often disguised as program content.

The ABC is not supposed to run ads within programs but it does. The show Gardening Australia regularly advertises a magazine called Gardening Australia, a commercial publication that has plenty of paid advertising. Gardening Australia is published by the Federal Publishing Company, not by the ABC. The current issue includes a commercial catalogue, which is a third the size of the magazine itself. Yet there are a number of gardening magazines in Australia. It is not fair that only one gets to promote itself on the ABC.

The same applies to Limelight, the successor to 24 hours. It's a commercial operation, published by State of the Arts, and takes paid advertising. Limelight promotes the ABC and the ABC promotes it. No other entertainment magazine is allowed access to the ABC's broadcast audience.


It is reaching the point where the ABC can advertise whatever it likes. It just needs to have some kind of relationship with the advertiser. I can see cars of the future, for example, with the ABC logo on the grille. And burger joints with a golden ABC logo.

Unfortunately, the ABC does have to supplement its income. To my mind, it may be the lesser of two evils for the organisation to take paid advertising without subterfuge and run advertisements between programmes, just like on SBS. Merchandising and self-promotion are seriously undermining the quality of what aunty has to offer. The need to talk about yourself the whole time does not look like independence to me.

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Article edited by Susan Prior.
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This article was first published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

Michael McGirr's biography of the Hume Highway, Bypass, will be published by Picador in 2004.

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