“The ABC are being bullies”

Is the ABC the latest corporation to sell out, writes Kara de Groot.

The ABC is considered one of the final bastions of quality, free-to-air programs, and is widely respected for its dedication to the public interest and its unbiased reporting of current events. However some media observers suggest the ABC may be turning into another big corporation, intent on retaining its monopoly, to the disadvantage of the average Australian.

In 2008 the ABC unveiled its latest innovation, ABC iView, an online service designed to let viewers watch programs after they had been aired. However there was a catch, watching iView requires specific technology: a fast internet connection, Adobe Flash Player, or by downloading the official ABC iView app on Apple devices. This means that users who have Android devices are not able to access iView, and people with slow internet connections cannot view playable content.

Comparison of average monthly unique users and recurring users from 2008 – 2012.

Sydney-based programmer Jeremy Visser noticed that ABC iView was inaccessible to a portion of the population, and in 2009 he released an open-source program called Python-iView, a program that allowed people, including those on Android devices, to download and view ABC iView programs. Three years after Python-iView had been released, Visser received a cease-and-desist letter from the ABC, stating that he was to remove Python-iView from his website. Any compromises were flatly rejected.

In 2012, the iView site received nearly one million ‘unique visits’ – the first visit from a user, and nearly 3.5 million ‘recurring visits’ – users who access ABC iView multiple times. This number has   been steadily increasing since the site was first launched. Currently, approximately 90 per cent of computer and portable device users use systems that run Adobe Flash Player, meaning if their Internet is fast enough they can easily view ABC iView.

A little over 5 per cent of computer and portable device users run Android. This may not sound like a large percentage, but if this number were added to the current unique users of ABC iView, it would mean an extra 51,355 viewers per month. With such a large number of people willing but unable to access ABC iView, it is odd that the ABC not only shut down a successful application that let them access it, but actively refuse to release ‘platform-agnostic’ software that would let any individual access ABC iView no matter where they are.

Comparison of operating systems iView users use. Created using data collected from Google Trends and Insights.

In response to comments about the lack of support for Android users, Sally O’Donoghue, a manager for ABC iView, has stated “The fragmentation of the Android platform and the number of devices makes it challenging for us to develop, test and support these devices at present”. What these comments fail to recognise is that operating systems such as Microsoft are equally fragmented, and also run on a ‘number of devices’. The ABC seem to have forgotten that their charter demands they ‘(seek) both to draw audiences to the platforms it controls and to reach audiences using suitable services…’.

Jeremy Visser argues that the ABC should be actively developing usable programs for the 50,000 plus potential audience members, instead of “working to achieve official Android support” after upgrading systems for current working devices. Visser also says that the ABC have developed iView “on a platform (with) extremely poor cross-platform interoperability”, meaning programs such as Python-iView are necessities for a large number of people who wish to watch ABC iView. With this in mind, it is extremely significant that the ABC have had removed workable programs, without replacing them with viable alternatives. Comments have been made that the ABC sees placating its content providers as more important than doing the right thing by the community, the people who pay for and have supported the ABC.

In the past it may have been possible for Android users to access a version of ABC iView on their device, if they had already downloaded Adobe Flash Player. This is no longer the case: Adobe no longer supports Android devices, and if an Android user tries to access the ABC iView site, they are greeted with a message asking them to download Adobe Flash Player. If they click the link provided, they are told they can only download Adobe Flash Player if they already have Adobe Flash Player installed.

Comparison of desktop usage rates to portable devices.

Currently nearly half of iView users watch their programs from a portable device, such as smartphones or tablets, and this percentage is only expected to increase over time. Given Android is a household name when it comes to portable devices; it seems uncharacteristic of the ABC not to focus on making iView available for Android as soon as possible. In their defence, the ABC has stated they are working on reducing the difficulty in maintaining and renovating their current platforms, which would hopefully give them more time to work on device support. However, Visser is still not convinced, “The ABC are being bullies here,” he said in an interview, “They produce lots of good content, (and) have the least sucky news coverage in Australia… I’m just disappointed at their cowardly approach to this issue”.

The ABC seems to have forgotten at least 50,000 people, many of whom want to use their services, but are unable to, due to poor device support and even poorer customer service.  People like Jeremy Visser have tried to help, providing services that let individuals access quality programming, only to be shut down by lawyers and turgid letters. It’s hard to do the right thing when you’re faced with companies who are more focused on profits than the public, but the ABC need to remember that their duty is to the citizens of Australia, to provide them with, as their charter states, “a broad range of subjects from a diversity of perspectives reflecting a diversity of experiences, presented in a diversity of ways from a diversity of sources”. It’s not enough to create the content; the ABC needs to ensure that the public can access it.