ABC boss Guthrie on ads, partnering with Netflix and diversity

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 29 July 2016
Michelle Guthrie

Michelle Guthrie, the new managing director of the ABC says despite reports when she took up the top spot that she would drive a much more commercial agenda at the ABC, she has no plans to make advertising a part of the ABC's remit.

Speaking at The Australian’s Creative Country event in Melbourne yesterday (28 July), in what was her first major public speech since taking on the mantle, Guthrie, who came from the commercial world spending years at Google, Foxtel and BskyB before taking on the remit for the national broadcaster, says it is actually a relief to be in an organisation that doesn't have a structure based around commercial sales.

When she took on the top spot she said she would look at all options of raising money at the ABC – prompting outcry that the ABC would be flooded with advertising. 

However, Guthrie, who was named as the ABC MD in December and took over in April, said that while ABC content will always be available for free via its own platforms, it needs to strike deals with other platforms to make it more accessible wherever and whenever audiences want it - and that includes Netflix. 

While she accepted the ABC had not been as starkly impacted as commercial media organisations from the shifting sands in media and the movement of ad dollars, she said she doesn't agree with the sentiment that it has escaped unscathed or distorts the market and should be similarly "hobbled".

Well aware that anything she says is likely to be “dissected” to within an inch of its life “same fervour that religious scholars apply to biblical texts”, she said it is too early in her tenure to outline her full “blueprint” for the ABC, but she is clearly forming a direction. Her role, she says, is to be a "catalyst" for fresh thinking and ideas.

She has brought her experience from Google and is doing “deep dives” into the ABC’s data to better understanding what drives decisions, and whether it has the right work force and tactics to keep the right people within the organisation to meet its charter and deliver the best services and programming it can.

Guthrie also talked about diversity within the ABC and its responsibility under its charter to represent the full breadth of the Australian public.

She believes there is no reason why the ABC shouldn’t reach 100% of the Australian population, but cited the latest PwC Outlook report, which said the media industry is being hampered by the lack of diversity in its ranks and its 'Bondi hipster' profile. 

“I’ve heard it said in the past that the ABC has captured the hearts and minds of every pre-school and aged care facility in Australia. It’s a joke but it belies a lack of innovation and commitment – because an ABC that is paid for by every Australian should strive harder to serve each and every Australian,” she says.

“Yes this is a stretch and it means the ABC will have to be more innovative in its approach, seeking creative partnerships, building its repertoire of programming and ensuring our content is available wherever and whenever they want it.

“[Having a] broader reach doesn’t imply dumbing down or a relentless chase of ratings success. It means programming with mass appeal and serving niche audiences. Broadening our reach means having a more innovative approach to the creation and distribution of content. The idea that the customer has to come and find you [the media] and must stay within your boundaries is now obsolete. Consumers exist in a networked universe – when they go to Netflix why shouldn’t they find ABC content? Or if they go to a Fairfax or News Corp site why shouldn’t they sign in using a Facebook log in?”

She added that a merger between her organisation and "fellow public broadcaster" SBS was "a government matter" and not for her to address, but she did concede that there are ongoing discussions between the two around efficiencies.

"We operate in the same space and are both funded by the taxpayer so we should be co-operating ... It's more than co-operation."

Innovation is a key part of what Guthrie believes will ensure the ABC does more than just survive in the fragmented media landscape, and she wants to build a diverse workforce that is “open to change and willing to adopt new strategies. She also wants to “foster and reward curiosity, experimentation and adaptability” across the organisation.

“I will never claim to be the repository of all the great ideas … my job is to unleash creativity so the ABC can not just survive, but flourish in a crowded market,” she says.

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