A decade later and the ABC News channel plays a significant role in Australia’s broadcast mix. Its breakfast program, which airs on ABC’s main channel as well as its news channel, draws a combined audience that sometimes exceeds that of commercial rival Today. (Nine, the broadcaster of Today, is also the owner of this masthead.)
While it is an increase mirrored in other outlets, the ABC News channel has seen a spike in viewers who are seeking out the latest information on major events, including the summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ABC says its 24-hour news channel is reaching an average 4.2 million Australians on any given week this year, a 37 per cent increase compared to 2019.
“[ABC News] has taught all of our teams to get out of that deadline mentality of scheduled broadcast news,” Morris says. “It taught us to think about the audience’s needs. I think the launch changed the commercials’ approach to news as well.
“Back then, the commercials wouldn’t have gone three to four hours on a significant event. They didn’t have as many news bulletins. And so we met them at breakfast but equally [they] rose to the challenge of doing more live news events.”
Now, Morris is preparing the public broadcaster for another seismic shift in the way it operates – all while juggling a smaller budget, job losses and calls for greater diversity. At least 70 jobs are expected to go in the ABC’s news division in the coming weeks.
“In the next five, 10 years, audience habits will change a lot,” Morris says. “We’ll need to respond to that. I think it’ll be a more personalised news experience. I think what you’ll see is the news channel … still providing a live news service for the foreseeable future, but looking at how we provide an on-demand news service as well.”
The example Morris uses is if he gets into his car at 6.45pm, he’s already missed the first half of radio current affairs program PM. He believes the ABC should invest in technology that will play bulletins or programs from the top when listeners or viewers first tune in. This is achievable, he says, thanks to advances in digital radio and smart TVs.
“Fewer people will watch or listen to linear broadcast services by the clock and will seek out services that will suit their timeframe,” he says.
Morris says he intends to be more diplomatic during this latest transformation. Past and current ABC employees say early on in his executive career, Morris wasn’t afraid of issuing broadsides to staff he thought weren’t pulling their weight.
An often-cited example is an email he sent to staff threatening to take away an office fridge if employees continued to leave the kitchen in disarray. The email read, in part: “If you want to live like backpackers, there’ll be a Maccas up the street to get your dinner.”
Morris says his management style has changed significantly during the past decade. “In those early days, I was purposely brought in as a bit of a change agent. [I used] a bit of a crash-through approach. Since then, what I’ve clearly tried to do is be a lot more collaborative, a lot more collegiate in seeking change at the ABC and seeking change more broadly.”
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald