Jennifer Collins: ringside in the arena of ABC change

Beneath a decorously savage surface, the ABC has relentlessly turned vague cliches into solid restructures. What does this look like to a patient veteran?

The upper reaches of the ABC have been an intellectual battlefield for generations because it is responsible to Australian society. 

We’ve seen the ABC struggle with its own imperial nature, to focus outwards, to become part of the screen sector, to take on the internet, to connect with audiences. We have seen bucketloads of cliches about de-siloing, about a national conversation, about new technologies, about a ‘digital first’ ABC. 

The long view of Jennifer Collins

The announcement that Jennifer Collins is now the ‘inaugural Head of Factual & Culture within its Entertainment & Specialist (E&S) division, to lead the development and production of innovative content across genres such as arts, religion, science, education, health, history and social affairs’, is really intriguing. She started at the ABC in 1991, she left for a while and she knows the changing cultural ethos.

‘I grew up on the tools, so to speak,’ Collins told Screenhub in an interview. ‘I started with the ABC fresh from university in the days where there was training, and worked my way up from producer’s assistant, director’s assistant, researcher, producer, executive producer and into management. So, I do have a depth of experience.’

The ABC is deep in her nature. ‘I’ve always been attracted to it. I think that’s from growing up in a household where the ABC was predominantly what was on the telly at the time. When you grow up in the days of co-viewing sitting as a family and watching shows, and you’re connecting with your family, you just develop this deep love for the content. And that’s what’s always stayed with me.’ 

Read: Nick Hayden, ABC Head of Entertainment, on ideas, joy and management 

Beneath her quiet exterior she obviously belongs to the Ideas R Entertainment tribe. In 2013, imbued to her socks with public broadcasting, she left to become Head of Non-Fiction at independent company Screentime, which was just as steeped in commercial television drama. After five years, she became Head of Content at Fremantle. She learnt to appeal to different broadcasters with their specific ideas of audience, and to function in a system which is ruthlessly driven by slots, numbers, competition and programming strategies. The mantra was always: how can we build this show to meet your needs? 

Now she is back as part of the ABC’s latest Five Year Plan. That is the one that turns Entertainment and Specialist Factual content makers ‘into a single team across television, radio and digital, including Radio National, podcast creation hub Audio Studios and flagship programs such as Compass, Catalyst and the ABC’s acclaimed arts documentaries.’

Surely she is in a position to see the true meaning and impact of change in the ABC? 

From buzz words to masterplans

‘In seven years, it’s changed dramatically’, she said. ‘Seven years ago, we were always sitting around as a management team talking about the future when audiences migrated to digital platforms, or when audiences are looking for their content on demand. Now it’s here and the digital focus is the biggest challenge. 

‘But the great thing is, we’re actually engaging with our audience in a much more meaningful way, now that we’re connected with them. We’re getting that direct feedback. Twenty years ago, we were getting the mail, the letters off the back of programs and we would be desperate for that kind of feedback. Now those digital platforms deliver that instant connection with our audiences and we are talking to our audiences every day.’

‘We’re actually engaging with our audience in a much more meaningful way, now that we’re connected with them. We’re getting that direct feedback. Twenty years ago, we were getting the mail, the letters off the back of programs and we would be desperate for that kind of feedback.’ 

I imagine that is creating a radically different culture inside the ABC.

‘Has it become a different internal culture? I think people just are more responsive to the audience. We can hear our audience quicker so we can deliver to our audience quicker. At the at the moment, the ABC is very focused on diversity, for example, and inclusion. We are building towards being much more relevant and reflecting Australian society in a more meaningful way and there’s no denying that our commitment to reflecting and engaging with the nation is right there with us every day.’

The ABC has pushed towards a genre rather than a medium based approach to management, which integrates television, digital media, radio and special cross-media events around subject rather than forms of expression.

How is it working in the Cultural and Factual department inside the E&S division?

Practical implications

‘What it means is, all of those genres are tied together under Factual culture, and we’re making content across radio, television and digital. So, the digital teams are embedded through that broader factual team. So we have that specialist genre knowledge and then the digital skills to bring that together. That’s what I think is so exciting.’

Modern management tends to see content as a kind of pudding baked by creators, which can be sliced and packaged in different ways. These reforms in the ABC go back beyond the content to the knowledge and its embedded world views as the crucial real-world element that drives the rest. 

‘Then you can look across arts or science and say, “Okay, how are we best placed to bring that information to our audience?  Is it better in a TV show? Is it better as a radio program? Is it better as a digital piece of content on the ABC platform? Or is it better on a third party platform? Do you put the content out on multiple platforms or strategically focus on one platform?”’

The true meaning of digital first

At this point, the penny dropped for me. ‘That’s a completely different way of thinking,’I said, ’because the traditional television thing has been about saying, “Here is a slot, how are we going to fill it?”’

‘Exactly. Exactly. Exactly,’ Jennifer Collins replied. ‘Often it would be “here is the slot? How are we going to fill up with a TV show? And then what might we put off the back of it  to promote it?” 

‘But it’s a complete reversal of that. Now, it’s a digital first approach to the content, and then how we distribute that content, what shape is it to, best tell the story, and then what platform delivers that to your audience?’ You can put your content out across multiple platforms or strategically focus in on one platform, depending on the piece of content.’

As a factual television person who has moved to online print, I get alarmed about that. Domains of knowledge are profound (historians think like historians, for instance) but different crafts of communication are cults of their own. Radio is radio, thank you very much.

Read: How Phryne Fisher took her revolver to Shanghai

But the ABC’s response to COVID-19 is a good example of this integrated approach, assembled ultimately on one website page which includes news stories, charts, external material, the Coronavirus podcast and so on. The community of science geeks and their different interlocked ways of communicating are invisible to the audience, who react intuitively to their need for different forms of communication. 

‘I think the science side is a very good example,’ said Collins. ‘The terrific thing about the science team is there are absolute skills required for particular platforms – there is no doubt about it – and what works really beautifully is when those teams are all working together, so they can support each other. 

‘Yes, for somebody that’s writing an article for the newsletter, or for a particular platform, that writing skill is different to the video skill that might be needed for video content sitting on a social platform, and then another skill again, for a half hour or shaping a one hour science documentary. 

‘So I think what the science team, does really, really well is leveraging each other’s skills, and, but they still, they’re all communicating all the time. So they’re all talking about each other’s content, they’re supporting each other’s content, and maybe creating a bit more impact around one piece of content that might be a digital video piece of content that then has something else sitting off the back of it.’

Arts, indies and excellence

The relationship between the independent factual and documentary community in this context seems to be woolly at the moment. Collins is determined to support the one-off documentary (which is a ghastly description of the community in itself) and reminded me she was responsible for a solid arts slate when she worked for Screentime and FremantleMedia. 

But the one thing she hasn’t done is worked for a small production company trying to support individual visions. The universal model for independents working with broadcasters, cable companies and streamers is about conforming to a house brand. Once the ABC caught onto the idea of presenter-based projects, we saw a parade of hero figures in which strands are built around personalities. 

That is a great idea but we are left to wonder about the role of individual visions. How can the ABC’s centres of expertise be available to the sector, and how can they be exploited nationally? Is it ultimately possible to throw the cookie cutter out of the cutlery box? 

There is a lot more to be said about this as it emerges in a post-Covid world. For the moment, Jennifer Collins is pointing out that the independent partners benefit from the digital first support for ideas and crusades. The sector has begged for adequate marketing support by the broadcaster for a very long time.

For the indies, this is yet another challenge to quality: to compete at the highest level, excellence is all, and excellence in documentary is ultimately about domain knowledge and impeccable research. That is a tough ask outside an institution. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.