On Wednesday, ABC managing director Mark Scott (pictured) warned Senate Estimates that content diversity would suffer if the ABC was privatised. This follows the Victorian Liberal Party's recent revival of public discussion of selling the ABC and SBS to help retire public debt.
Diversity of content refers to program material that caters for those who might be called the 'media poor'. That includes audiences in rural and regional Australia, or with specialised cultural or educational interests that commercial media deem unprofitable.
The ABC has a charter obligation to serve these 'unloved' audiences, and to 'take account of the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community sectors' by not duplicating what they offer.
Scott said accepting advertising 'fundamentally changes the nature of the content you create, the content you purchase and deliver and fundamentally it dilutes the impact and the quality of the broadcaster'.
But it's more than that. Maintaining the distinction between ABC and commercial content is just as fundamental, because the ABC's own efforts to compete with commercial media can undermine the diversity of its content.
Yet ratings are a significant influence in ABC programming decisions, and their increasing prominence in the news affects the public's perception of whether the ABC is successful and should be maintained. Currently there is no comparably robust and prominent measure of the diversity of the content.
If ABC and commercial media management use the same tool to measure the performance of their content, it follows that the programs are likely to become similar. A good case will emerge for selling the ABC because it is not focused on offering alternative non-commercial content.
Critics of the ABC have a point when they urge the removal of 'a government-funded goliath that is interfering with the market in the media landscape'. The ABC, they argue, 'has overstepped its raison d'être'.
In its early decades, it was usual to refer to the ABC as 'the National Service', with the implication that its programs were broadcast in the national interest. 'National' distinguished the ABC not from local broadcasters, but from the commercial stations whose legitimate business it was to maximise audiences and make a profit.
The future of media in Australia will be much different to what we know today, and if the ABC has a future, it will be about serving the common good rather than competing for audience share.