Over the past ten years that Mark Scott has been Managing Director of the ABC the national broadcaster has undergone significant changes. Budgets have shrunk; expectation by the public has increased; and technology has reshaped how Australians have consumed Aunty's offerings.
Trying times for any head of a billion dollar media company. Mark Scott knows, however, that the ABC Managing Director role is one to be cherished, despite the difficulties.
"It's been a singular honour to have this position," said Scott.
Scott presided over the rise of digital multichannel television, which includes the invention of ABC3 and ABC News 24 - the latter still the only free to air 24/7 television News service. He's advocated the use of social media across the ABC's Newsrooms and been an enjoyable participant in the process. He's worked with his team to ensure that ABC iview remains not only the nation's most used catch-up service but also seen it develop into a fully fledged streaming & binge-watch platform used by millions each month.
It's not all happy smiles from punters. Scott knows the challenges he's faced as MD and has been reminded everywhere he goes.
"One of the great things about the ABC is that everybody owns the ABC, everyone's a shareholder of the ABC," he said. "Most people I meet have a strong opinion about the ABC, and every event I go to, every person I meet, it's a gathering of shareholders of the ABC, so that's a good thing."
WHAT THE ABC NEEDS TO DO TO SURVIVE
That people are so opinionated about the ABC reflects the ownership of the media organisation felt by all. It stretches to decisions around reducing TV or radio footprint across the country, closing studios, and having familiar voices taken off-air through budgetary rationalisations.
Scott quotes di Lampedusa's The Leopard when reflecting on the impact of some of these challenges.
"One of the lines I've used a bit internally is from an Italian novel, The Leopard, and it says "If we want things to stay the way they are, everything will have to change."
"I think that's true at the ABC. If we want people to still come to us for Australian stories, where we still want to be a guest in the homes of millions of Australians every day, yes we're going to have to change. We're going to have to change in response to fast broadband and demand for catch-up television, and binge viewing, and different narrative arcs, and programs that premier on iview, and more short form video, and more young emerging talent. Yeah, we're going to have to change lots of things to keep us connected and compelling in the lives of Australians."
"We've had some big downsizing, we've had budget cuts, we've had to make changes, and that's meant that some people who have worked with us passionately in a diligent and effective and successful way, that their jobs are no longer there for them. That can be bewildering for them, and I can understand that. They've done everything we've asked, they've worked very hard; through no fault of their own things have changed, and we need to change."
"This has been tough, and to be compassionate and to be fair, to recognize that people will be angry and hurt, disappointed, that's been tough for me and tough for our managers, but I think we've managed it as best we can."
Part of these changes have been an acknowledgment of new players in the TV game in Stan, Netflix and Presto. It's altered the way the broadcaster measures how a program, particularly a drama, performs when measuring success - something Scott is acutely aware of.
"How you commission dramas and then show those dramas in a way they get the full audience they deserve, I think we'll clearly have more of an iview strategy over time as well as a broadcast strategy."
SLINGS AND ARROWS
The rise of iview has been a singular success for the ABC, though its the controversy surrounding many programs that fills more column inches and minutes on talkback radio on a weekly basis.
The bigger controversies draw instant feedback from the Minister for Communication or Prime Minister of the day. Late night phone calls from tetchy politicians is just part of the job. Like receiving phone calls the night of the now infamous Zakky Mallah Q&A epsiode.
"I understand the pressures that politicians are under. I understand that they get frustrated and annoyed from time to time, but I also know that tomorrow's another day, and what seems to be a crisis and a catastrophe today, often by the end of the week or next week things kind of settle down and moderate somewhat."
Managing the expectations of those that hold the purse strings can be a delicate, if at times dangerous proposition. For Scott, always seen as a calm and balanced person, there are times when the voices on the phone present their own challenges.
"No matter what you try and do, this is a fire that's not going out, that other people have an interest in keeping that fire going, and you've just got to be able to manage that and reflectively work your way through it as best you can."
This extends to Senate Estimates hearings, where the politicians of the day call to bear those organisations that receive funding from the Government to answer any and all questions. Scott faced his final estimates hearings yesterday and is circumspect about the gladiatorial process that it can at times become.
"I sometimes say lightheartedly, the ABC gets a billion dollars a year, I get to have to make 3 estimates hearings a year. On a cost per appearance thing you're collecting more than 300 million dollars for each appearance, it's not bad money if you can get it."
Not bad money indeed. That doesn't stop the political point scoring that often takes place in such hearings. Or at doorstops. Or in Question Time, or anywhere else they feel it will bring them political oxygen..
"I do not understand politicians who believe that there is sport or votes to be gained by attacking the ABC. We do a news poll survey every year. That poll is very, very consistent. The most recent poll showed that 84% of the Australian public, 84%, believe that the ABC provides a valuable or very valuable service. That is an unprecedented approval rating for a government organization."
"It's vastly more popular than any political party or any politician in the country, and so why a politician would think that there are votes to be gained by attacking the ABC rather than supporting the ABC ... I must say, whenever a politician does that, I just question their political judgement."
"I would have thought there is far more benefit to be gained in, yes, holding the ABC to account, of course, but also questioning about how they could help and support the ABC fulfill its charter and deliver the services that the public clamor for, and the services that are needed."
"Yes, you'll find some politicians who want to make sport on the ABC, I've never quite understood the political strategy behind that, but if that's what they want to do then I'll sit there and answer their questions."
Scott proved again yesterday amidst the flurry of questions from Senators Dastyari & Ludlum over the Nick Ross/NBN article issue that no matter the issue at hand, a calm facade and polite response will always trump a politically motivated barrage of questions.
TV Drama and comedy stand as firm favourites for the outgoing MD. He cites Gruen, Pickering & Micallef as personal favourites and Mad Men as one of his all time favourite dramas. That's not to say he's beyond a good binge-watch, citing ABC's Glitch as the last show he couldn't stop watching.
"I thought (Glitch) was terrific. I watched that with one of my daughters who watched the whole thing with her hands across her eyes. I watched other series through, but Glitch was the series I remember watching episode 2 at 9:00, and then 3 at 10:00, and let's just get going, no we'll watch one more, and then one more, and then all of a sudden at 2:00 in the morning we were done."
It's been a significant reflection on the ABC over the past five years that it has consistently delivered high-quality Australian drama where the commercial networks have struggled.
"Part of our challenge at the moment on television is that we have so many series that are successful that deserve another run. I'm glad The Code is coming back, I'm glad Rake is coming back. I'm glad Doctor Blake is back, but wow, lots of them have worked really well in trying to get the balance right between bringing back old ones and still doing some new ones, I think that's a challenge, but I'm looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to Barracuda, I'm looking forward to Cleverman. I think there's lots on the slate this year which are going to be terrific."
ADVICE FOR MICHELLE GUTHRIE
"I think Michelle Guthrie is just a smart, lovely, energetic person."
With an eye on the door and a smile on his face Scott offered a few pearls of wisdom for his successor, the first woman to take charge of the ABC in its history.
"Enjoy it and to explore the place, because I've found the more I've known about it, the more I've talked with different people in different parts of the organization, it's just been endlessly fascinating. Then, in a way, I'd encourage her to just continue to help reinvent this place to secure its future."
Broadly admired within the halls of the ABC Scott knows that the continued existence of our 'Aunty' is dependent on the ongoing ability for the media organisation - and particularly its management - to continually affirm its place in the nation's psyche as a broadcaster who connects locally and shares nationally. A business that has generational connections.
"I was very conscious of that, I think, that I grew up, my family watched and listened, my grandparents had watched and listened to the ABC, and that I knew the ABC faced great changes. I would talk about it, wanting to secure its future so that it was as loved and respected by my children's and grand-children's generation as it was from my parents and grandparent's generation."
"If you're going to do that, if you're going to secure its future, you have to change it, and so you have to be not frightened about bringing about the change that's necessary in a place like this."
Change. It has delivered tears and triumphs across Scott's tenure, and remains in his opinion critical to the ABC's survival.
"I'll be encouraging Michelle to enjoy every moment of it, to explore it deeply and to continue to change it as it needs to be changed to secure its future."