“We were pretty rough”
ABC News boss reflects on 10 years of a rolling news channel, and how things have changed.
As ABC News channel marks 10 years, news boss Gaven Morris is frank about those early days.
ABC News 24, as it was originally branded, copped criticism from all sides, but Morris now concedes they were with good reason.
“I’m perfectly upfront in saying it was a fairly diabolical News channel at the beginning,” he tells TV Tonight. “We we had the disadvantage of launching three months earlier than planned because of Rudd / Gillard and the early election. Not only had we not done anything like this at the ABC before, we ended up putting a whole bunch of new technology in, hiring a bunch of new staff and then going to air three months too early.
“The first six months of the channel being on air was a fairly humiliating experience because we were pretty rough. A lot happened… you had Japanese earthquake and the Fukushima meltdown, the Rudd Gillard stuff going on, the election.
“It wasn’t until a massive event … everybody thought ‘Ok, now we see what this is for.'”
“We didn’t get in our stride until the Brisbane floods in January 2011. That was really the moment where both the audience worked out what News 24 was for, and so did everyone inside the ABC. It wasn’t until a massive event like that, where everybody thought ‘Ok, now we see what this is for.'”
The channel was backed by then-managing director Mark Scott from funds resourced from elsewhere within ABC.
“Mark Scott said, ‘Look, you want to pitch this idea for a News channel? How much do you think it will cost?’ And I gave him a number and he said, ‘Well, we could probably do half of that.’ So it started on a shoestring. It literally started on half of what we probably really needed to do, as well as any sort of international comparison. Since then we’ve learned how to be very frugal and manage a rolling news channel, probably cheaper and more effectively than anyone else in the world.”
‘The ABC has tried this many times before, and it’s always failed.”
But there were plenty of sceptics waiting in the wings.
“Many of the old hands inside the ABC said, ‘The ABC has tried this many times before, and it’s always failed. This one will fail too,'” he recalls.
“News Corp. was unhappy that we were doing a news channel at all. They had a monopoly in Sky News, and though very few people watch Sky News, they like having it for themselves. So when we launched a news channel, we were already in their target. But also we weren’t very good.
“I remember many days where I would just go in there and try to cheer everybody up and try to keep going.”
Presenter Joe O’Brien has been with the channel since its inception with Ros Childs, Michael Rowland and Paul Kennedy amongst other long-serving faces. The channel has also given life to The Drum, One Plus One, The Mix, Planet America and a television edition of Grandstand -several of which have ‘graduated’ to the primary channel.
“There are remarkably few resources sitting behind them in the control room,” Morris says of presenters. “So usually you are reliant on the presenter in the chair at the time being thoroughly across everything, because they never know what’s going to come along.
“They’re not being fed scripts or information and quite often they’re having to resource all of that themselves from the set. So it’s an incredibly demanding job and obviously they do it for hours at a time” Unlike a very set piece of television news bulletin where there’s a much bigger team behind you, and it’s much more scripted.
“The mornings and the late evenings are really successful periods”
“The mornings and the late evenings are really successful periods for the News channel, and then obviously, whenever anything (big) happens. The spikes we get on the News channel when there is breaking news or a big live event are chalk and cheese compared to a normal day.
“The World at 10 o’clock has an amazingly resilient audience. But even that 10-11pm period when people have got through the day, got the kids to bed, and are probably thinking about turning in themselves, we find that a lot of people switch on to update themselves on what’s going on.”
But while Morris plans to launch a new regional bulletin, and offer more on-demand content, the heart of ABC News is for fact-based information in a world of breaking news. ABC is consistently rated the most trusted media in the country.
“Just imagine any of the events of the last six months without the News channel,” he suggests.
“It’s just become such a necessary part of the news landscape in Australia. I suppose when I look back on the whole experience, I certainly wouldn’t have given birth to it if I was given the choice, but I’m very proud with where it is a decade on.”