The ABC played a vital role in bringing Australians a full picture of the global crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
ABC News responded swiftly to the pandemic, with teams mobilising nationally and around the world to cover the unfolding story in depth. Rolling news coverage on the ABC NEWS channel brought audiences live briefings and press conferences, and trusted regular programs such as the 7pm News, 7.30, Four Corners, Foreign Correspondent, Q+A and AM explored related topics at length.
The ABC also sought new ways to inform the public. New daily podcast Coronacast, hosted by Dr Norman Swan and Tegan Taylor, fielded more than 75,000 audience questions about the pandemic by the end of June, and went to the top of the Apple chart in Australia, amassing 7.7 million downloads from March to May with an average of 2.6 million per month.1
Broadcast TV program The Virus and data journalism delivered by Casey Briggs provided extra, regular updates. The ABC also ran Government community service announcements which reached more than 8 million Australians, and the ABC's Audience Support team handled thousands of contacts requesting help.
The needs of parents and children as they moved to homeschooling saw the ABC launch an expanded schedule of free, curriculum-linked education content, which ABC Education worked with state and territory education departments to deliver. ABC ME extended its educational programming from 14 April, including blocks of primary school and secondary school content. Education content on ABC iview recorded its highest ever numbers (daily users and sessions), averaging 84,000 users in the first few days. At the height of school closures during April 2020, the ABC Education website saw 766,000 users, an increase of 239% of users compared to April 2019.
The ABC’s network of bureaux and international correspondents was vital as the outbreak became a pandemic, providing audiences with firsthand reports from the epicentre in Wuhan, locked-down towns in northern Italy, protests in Beirut, the streets of Delhi and crowded clinics of Jakarta.
Around Australia, local ABC teams responded to the new experiences and challenges facing their audiences with content that brought audiences together and helped them with day to day living during COVID-19.
ABC Hobart introduced ‘radio play’, a twice weekly children’s play segment mixing educational and entertaining activities for kids at home, while ABC Adelaide invited listeners to share messages of love and support for their relatives isolated in aged care facilities. Capital City teams across the country instigated Thank You Thursdays, shining a light on frontline workers. Messages of thanks were featured on-air and online.
Consultation with the Council of the Aging and Dementia Australia on the needs of older Australians during COVID-19 saw Capital City and regional networks draw awareness to the National COVID-19 Older Person Support Line. ABC Radio also launched 'Getting On', a weekly national segment on Afternoons with Angela Catterns aimed at older Australians, while five short digital video stories highlighting ways to stay connected while isolated and socially distanced, featuring cast members from Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, had more than 12 million views on social media.
triple j Hack and News were a vital source keeping younger Australians informed, focusing on health advice, the social implications of COVID-19, and workplace and economic issues. For the youngest viewers, Play School fast tracked episodes designed for co-viewing by parents and toddlers to explain questions around social distancing, how to wash your hands and why playgrounds were closed. These programs delivered an overwhelmingly positive audience response with a combined total of more than 1.3 million views. The ABC also worked with NITV and First Nations Media radio organisations to ensure the message was distributed to as many communities around Australia as possible.
Broadcast reach increased significantly across all platforms and then steadied, well above the 2019 averages. The ABC News channel recorded its highest-ever monthly reach in March 2020 with 6.4 million viewers, up 57% on March 2019.
The pandemic necessitated innovative ways to cover news events. When COVID-19 forced cancellations of local Anzac Day services and marches, the ABC produced a live broadcast weaving together the many threads of community movements, RSL events, government departments and the Australian War Memorial. ABC TV coverage reached an audience of 2.9 million, plus there were 657,000 streams on the ABC listen app.2
Audiences indicated they were looking for entertainment and distraction from the crisis at hand, and more than 200 hours of classic Australian screen content were added to ABC iview as a result, providing enhanced choice and variety.
The ABC brought the Melbourne International Comedy Festival into homes with a special Comedy Care Package that achieved an overnight metropolitan audience of 420,000 - up from 335,000 in 2019.3
Other morale-boosting new programs included At Home Alone Together, a comedic take on the lifestyle magazine genre that went from concept to screen in just six weeks, and Cuppa with Kumi from the Compass TV team, which addressed issues of community connection.
As the devastating effects on local productions became clear, the ABC announced it would be supporting more than 200 Australian productions and new content ideas through its $5 million Fresh Start Fund, to help safeguard local content and creativity.
Behind the scenes the corporation moved swiftly to safeguard coverage while prioritising the health and wellbeing of staff. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABC developed highly efficient and effective remote working capabilities, with approximately 85% of ABC employees supported and prepared to successfully work from home.
Essential editorial and production staff adopted strict protocols in the workplace and in the field to minimise health and safety risks and also to avoid any interruption to vital services.
All teams quickly adapted to the constraints and risks inherent in covering the pandemic via innovative approaches to gathering content, and leveraging social media platforms and other networks to reach people and continue to tell their stories.