ABC & the digital revolution: what's next?

ABC and the digital dilemma: what’s next?

by Peter Marks

The ABC has historically been flexible with the technologies it uses to transmit its content to consumers. Today’s technology landscape is changing faster than ever and the ABC must continue to straddle the old and the new if it is to remain available to contemporary as well as traditional audiences.


The rate of change to technologies affecting ABC broadcasting has accelerated over time. New technologies have not replaced older ones but added to the technical overhead of the organisation.

Changes in broadcast technology can be painful. Some people are left behind. Old technology is often expensive but effective and is missed by many when superceded. New technology can slash costs and create new opportunities but the landscape is crowded.

The ABC’s technology usage is as follows:

  • 1930 - Today Analog medium wave AM Radio

  • 1939 - 2017 Analog short wave AM Radio

  • 1956 - 2013 Analog Television

  • 1975 - Today Analog FM Radio

  • 1985 - Today Geostationary Satellite (Aussat)

  • 1997 - Today Audio internet streaming

  • 2001 - Today Digital Television

  • 2004 - Today Internet podcast audio

  • 2008 - Today Internet catchup video

  • 2009 - Today Digital Radio

The switching off of analog TV in 2013[1] disrupted some viewers but happily low cost set top boxes were available to enable their old TVs to pick up the new digital signals.

The ending of Australia’s short wave services in 2017[2] has made it impossible for Australian inland communities and the Asia Pacific nations to hear ABC broadcasts unless they are served by local relays or satellite services.

Analog FM remains, for now, but the clock is ticking.

The Analog AM broadcast band continues to be used, and arguably forms a backbone for communication in times of widespread disaster such as fire or extreme weather. But AM radio is falling from favour as it is increasingly interfered with by devices such as mobile phone chargers and soon electric cars. The US FCC is considering[4] switching AM to a digital alternative.

DAB+ (Digital Audio Broadcast) is in the largest cities[5] and is slowly being extended. Receivers are becoming standard in new cars.

Podcasts - recorded audio, distributed via internet file feeds that users subscribe to in applications that now come with all modern phones - have emerged as an important new form of media. Smart speakers provide a convenient new way to listen to these programs in the home.

Broadcaster Video On Demand (BOVD) - which the ABC was early to deliver through the iview service via apps, web and smart TVs or set top boxes - continues to grow. During the first half of 2019, BVOD recorded in excess of 20 billion streaming minutes (Live + VOD), up 52% on the same period the previous year.

Linear TV is on a long slow decline and has already been abandoned by millennials[7]. US figures from Nielson[8] 2020 show “In percentage terms, the amount of time 18-34-year-olds as a whole spent watching traditional TV (live and time-shifted) in the first quarter of 2020 dropped by about 15.3% from the previous year.” At the other extreme, over 65s remain loyal linear TV viewers watching over six hours a day. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall.

The fight for attention

Media that competed for our attention in the past was divided between newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Despite fears at the time of their introduction, each new technology did not kill the earlier modes.

Today, however, attention is more divided than ever with social media capturing reading, podcasts capturing listening, and video on demand (Netflix etc) capturing viewers.

Highly tuned recommendation systems, tailored to each consumer, are designed to keep their attention and create a fear of missing out during breaks in consumption.

Emergency broadcasting

Australians turn to the ABC when there is a fire, storm, flood, heatwave or pandemic[9]. During times of mass disruption, internet and mobile communications may be congested or down and power may be out for long periods. Low cost, widely available, medium wave battery AM radios can reliably pick up the ABC’s high power AM transmitters located in each state.

There is a high cost to the ABC to continue to provide this network of transmitters from its existing budget, but it is a valuable resource that should be maintained just as other emergency assets are kept intact. There is a case for additional funding for the ABC as part of Australia’s emergency preparedness.

The (near) future - internet from space

Internet access direct from low earth orbit satellites to anywhere on the Earth will be commercially available from Starlink by the end of this year in the US and Canada and “near global coverage” is expected by 2021[10]. While pricing has not been announced, it is likely that the pizza-box-sized ground unit will cost around US$300 with service costing around US$80 a month.

Starlink has registered in Australia and received ACMA permits for four ground stations in remote Australia.

SpaceX Starlink is just one of several competing systems under construction, including OneWeb, Amazon, Samsung, Boeing and others.

Early tests of the internet performance of Starlink[12] show latency (response time) from 20ms, download speeds of 100Mbps and uploads of 40Mbps, matching NBN speeds in capital cities.

While internet from satellites won’t currently work from hand held or even car based terminals, it will open up the entire Australian and neighbouring regional landscape to a reliable and fairly fast internet service that can be the backbone for broadcasting and not be affected by outages from disasters on the ground.

It is conceivable that eventually technology will evolve to connect mobile phones directly to low earth orbit satellites.

Being where the audience is

As always, the ABC needs to be where the audience is.

As long as ABC programs are clearly branded and do not have advertising embedded or surrounding them (at least for Australian audiences), there is further potential for these programs to be made available on popular platforms:

● Social media. Facebook, Twitter

● Social video: YouTube, Instagram

● Video: Netflix, Apple TV

● Smart speakers: Google Home, Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa

● Podcast apps

● News aggregators: Apple, Google, Twitter

The future role of “linear” broadcast

Linear broadcasts, where there is a stream of programs scheduled by time, suit consumers who favour “appointment” viewing or listening.

Traditional radio and TV continue to be valued by older consumers, but it can also serve more widely as a “showcase” for programs available by direct streaming or download.

Rather than filling TV hours with British police shows, samples of the best of the ABC’s productions could be shown with instructions on how to access full series through digital platforms. For example, the first episode of, for example, a drama, might be shown on the linear service with the remainder available via streaming (iview).

Apps

Custom applications, such as those for iOS, Android, TVs and future platforms are expensive to create and support but provide the smoothest, most responsive experience for users.

Apps tailored to a particular device are easy for the user to understand, and particularly convenient on mobile phones which are constantly carried by the consumer.

The current ABC app catalog includes:

● ABC News

● Iview

● Listen

● Kids

● ME

● Triple j

● Triple j Unearthed

● Kokoda VR

● Vegie Guide

Building the bond with the audience

There is much to be learned (for both emulating and avoiding) from the techniques of social media[13] and video platforms such as Netflix, TikTok and YouTube, which monitor each individual’s viewing and use the information to make further viewing recommendations.

To better customise ABC content suggestions to users, we need them to be uniquely identified. ABC consumers must get value from logging in. ABC systems should identify what content keeps each users attention and suggest more that might be of interest.

Users should be able to create anonymous accounts but still be recognised. Households should have personas so that different consumers sharing a device can identify themselves easily.

Tracking should be transparent and the history editable by the consumer. Recommendations should explain why they are being made.

Future options

The Internet is rapidly becoming the dominant carrier for all content, and innovations, and with the introduction of technologies such as 5G wireless and low earth orbit satellite it will be ubiquitous.

There is an argument for the bulk of radio to remain “live” to provide listeners with a range of news, current affairs, opinions, music, science, etc, that they might not access from self-selection.

However, for a growing number of people, most content is more conveniently consumed on-demand in the form of catch-up or podcast subscriptions.

For these consumers, very little of the ABC content needs to be “live”, aside from:

● Breaking news and emergency coverage

● Sport

● Talk back

● Parliament (as per the ABC Charter)

It is possible that, as habits change, new models of delivery will emerge.

Smartphone penetration in Australia is approaching 80%[14] and these devices are ideal for consumption of audio and increasingly video.

Smart TV penetration in Australia is relatively low at about 12.1%[15] but the use of set top boxes or dongles capable of showing Netflix and other video services is increasing rapidly and ABC content should be available on these platforms.

News and other primarily text content can be delivered through web pages or news apps. The news aggregation world is changing but having ABC content prominent on aggregators such as Google News and Apple News is an excellent way to reach that audience at low cost, provided appropriate branding and non-advertising agreements can be made.

Difficult decisions

The ABC makes high quality, much loved content. Choosing the platforms on which to distribute its output is going to be tough especially as, if the past tells us anything, options will continue to proliferate.

This is the digital dilemma - which technologies to focus on in the years ahead and when to let go of the past.

19 October 2020

For further information, please contact Peter Marks at ABCAlumniAustralia@gmail.com