SBS BOSS ADDRESSES THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB: Shaun Brown, Managing Director of SBS has felt under fire recently. So much so that Brown, who usually avoids talking to the media, felt the need to tell his side of the story at the National Press Club on 29 August 2007. However, the public now see straight through his cunning move to commercialise SBS and dumb it down.
Let’s look at what the quietly spoken Brown said when he put his spin to the National Press Club.
The SBS Managing Director said that he had spoken to both major parties and neither Liberal nor Labor had given any [funding] commitment to SBS. However, Brown did not indicate that he gave a commitment to drop the advertisement interruptions into programs on SBS either. This is like a chicken and egg. At his address to the National Press Club, although Brown said that the majority of funding from the Commonwealth paid for the “mechanics of just keeping [SBS] on air”, and although he said that he was seeking increased funding in real terms, he gave no indication that he asked for or indeed wanted, full government funding for SBS. But why would he? If SBS was fully funded then the argument that Brown articulates as the reason for having ads on SBS becomes irrelevant. Although critical of insufficient government funds, the truth is Brown does not want SBS to be fully funded. He avoids such discussion.
Like the Board of SBS, Brown is very attracted to the commercial philosophy.
Why would any government commit to more funding if Brown insists on the right or need to run ads? Brown failed to acknowledge that full government funding would mean that he would have to drop his commercialisation approach.
Ads Interrupting Programs:
In discussing why SBS took the decision to interrupt programs with ads, Brown admitted to pandering to the needs of the advertisers who preferred to have their spots inside a program instead of at the end of a program. But Brown also said that SBS had been losing many of its audience who switched off ad breaks between programs. However he produced no evidence that that practice has stopped since SBS began interrupting programs for ads. And, other than the loss of some long time audience, he never discussed if viewers like having programs interrupted for ads. Regardless, Brown misses the point that SBS is a special broadcaster, targeting niche audiences. It was never supposed to be a comprehensive broadcaster appealing to all. That’s the role of the ABC.
At one stage during his address to the National Press Club, Brown said that SBS was not going to ask for a change in legislation to increase the paid-ads from 5 minutes per hour, however later he said that the [SBS] Act says “thou shalt raise an advertising revenue to a maximum of 5 minutes per hour” and that that was at odds with the Charter which he described as “an enabling instrument.” He also said it was “limiting” although he did not like that term. It seems that Brown has misread the legislation that SBS operates under. The Act does not state anywhere that “thou shalt raise an advertising revenue to a maximum of 5 minutes per hour.” Section 45 of the Act merely states that “SBS may only broadcast advertisements . . . during natural program breaks . . . not more than 5 minutes in any hour of broadcasting.” This is a far sight from being required to do so. Brown revealed his true colours to the National Press Club when he said: “It’s a betrayal of the Charter to turn your face against the licence that raises the revenue that gives effect to the very principles that the Charter embodies.” This is the first real clue, an admission if you like, that deep down Brown wants either the Charter changed, presumably to be made less “limiting” or the 5 minutes per hour of paid advertising to be lifted, although, in this same address to the National Press Club he denied that he held such views. Brown’s comments just cited about the betrayal of the Charter are a real worry for the future of SBS as a public broadcaster. It is clear to us that Brown misunderstands the purpose of a public broadcaster as well as past legal interpretations. His current interpretation has never been tested in the courts. For a greater discussion about the Charter and advertising legalities for SBS read: the page “FAQ SBS Funding” (see ‘SBS Charter‘ half way down that page) and “FAQ SBS Advertising & Legislation” on the Save Our SBS web site.
On ads in programs: Brown says the public broadcaster “had no choice” because advertisers were rejecting the other model of ads between programs only. Was he pandering to the needs of the advertisers? Save Our SBS has obtained documents that show that SBS is putting the advertisers first, above the needs of the viewers. You can read more about that at: “SBS Doc’s: Truth About Ads” on the Save Our SBS web site.
Brown does not believe that ratings are a “dirty word” but argues that “ratings are as important to public broadcasting as it is to others” and that “in commercial TV, ratings equals revenue” whilst with SBS, being a hybrid-funded broadcaster, “ratings equals relevance and revenue”. Since Brown is talking equations, it is worth observing that in our view the introduction of advertising, especially within programs fundamentally alters the equation or relationship with the audience. It in fact makes the audience the product, and the buyer is the advertiser or client of SBS. Programs are supposed to be the attraction for the audience so as to maximise the revenue potential and are no longer the product itself. Usually on commercial TV most programs are made with ad breaks in mind (even live football matches have to wait for the ad break to finish!). In that sense the interruptions actually appear as less intrusive. The big problem is that this is not the case with most of the programs upon which SBS has built its reputation over the years, and the intrusion of the ad breaks is all the more disruptive. Now Brown’s answer to this might be to purchase or commission programs which are more ‘ad friendly’. And in doing that there will inevitably be a decline in the quality – it is hard to imagine many serious documentaries for instance being chopped up with ads and still retaining their intended impact.
Furthermore it is clear from the rejection of the between-program ad break model that advertisers believe that a captive audience (product) is much better value. We believe that there has been, or will be a shift in the audience for SBS programs. Two scenarios seem possible – one is that former loyal viewers will be so unhappy about being treated as product that they will cease viewing SBS leading to a decline in ratings and revenue. Or somehow audience numbers will increase. Now, call us cynical, but an increase in audience numbers is not likely to be because people are tuning in for the ads. No, as per commercial network experience, audience numbers only increase in response to program appeal, as opposed to program quality. If a program fails to deliver the audience expected, revenue suffers and it is soon dropped or buried at a lower revenue timeslot. Either way we have difficult reconciling this with Brown’s equation of relevance and revenue since the measure of audience “engagement” must only suffer.
Blame Digital – The Reason For Ads:
In part, Brown blames the SBS decision to interrupt programs for ads on the advent of digital broadcasting. It the fault of digital broadcasting and the government.
Brown says that no extra money had been made available for any content to broadcast on SBS2, the digital “World News” Channel. He is right. However SBS2 currently broadcasts repeat of News programs in languages other than English (LOTE). Of course these days you find precious few non-English programs in or around prime time on SBS1.
The government did provide more than a billion dollars for the infrastructure for digital but no money for content.
In discussing ads, it is here that Brown displayed his true and in our view, unhealthy obsession in taking SBS down the ultimate commercial path. When questioned about SBS digital 2, Brown said he wanted that developed further. He did not say exactly what he wanted SBS2 to broadcast except that he needed $20M of government funding to do it. He expected that this would later be supplemented significantly by advertising.
Brown said he regarded the SBS “Charter as limiting” and he made “no apology” for wanting to “squeeze every last dollar out of ads”. When questioned by a journalist at the National Press Club, Brown said that SBS currently raised $50M [per year] from advertisers” and felt that was no real competition against the billions of dollars that the commercial stations gained from ads and they [the commercial networks] should have “no concern for the moment”.
That sounds to us like Brown is really committed, obsessed with wanting to fully take SBS further down the commercial path, later. Does he hope that one day SBS will be able to compete with the commercial networks for their advertising dollar? We believe that he would like the sky should be the limit.
Brown puts forward a new argument. This new argument is a total shift away from the original argument that Brown put in 2006 that SBS hoped only to raise only an extra $10M by interrupting programs for advertisements. Now he wants to fund SBS even more so from ads and he wonders why government and opposition are not offering to fully fund SBS. The public are now saying, very clearly, that they want SBS to voluntarily stop the advertisements interruptions into program. In our view Mr Brown and the SBS Board are destroying SBS as it was intended and as we have come to know it. When he was Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser set up SBS and he is now reported in The Australian as telling the Inquirer that “he always planned for SBS to be a tax-funded broadcaster and says the Government stands condemned for not providing more money to protect SBS”.
Brown talked further about how he regarded the SBS Charter as restrictive in what it laid down as the framework for how SBS ought to operate. He said that “the Act says that thou shalt raise an advertising revenue to a maximum of five minutes an hour”. As noted earlier, somewhat perversely he went on to say “I think it’s a betrayal of the Charter to turn your face against the licence that raises the revenue that gives effect to the very principles that the Charter embodies”. This sounded like he was putting any future government on notice that he wanted the advertising restriction to be removed totally, and, the argument he might falsely and wrongly put is that in order to full fill the requirements of the Charter, SBS must be allowed to run even more ads on air that it does at the moment. Brown is cautious to admit this but if you listen carefully to what he says, it is easy to get that sense. Well we don’t want more ads in program. We want no ads.
An argument Brown puts forward mitigating advertisements on SBS is that, being a public broadcaster, all the money from ads, goes back into the station and is not filling the pockets of shareholders. Well that’s a silly argument because the public just don’t want the ads breaks on SBS, shareholders or not. The ads are still annoying no matter where the revenue from them ends up.
A Dumbed Down SBS:
As we have observed earlier Brown sees an equation for commercial broadcasters such that Ratings equals Revenue, but that in SBS’s case Ratings equals Relevance and Revenue – the three R’s. If we look at this in mathematical terms we could say that Ratings equals the sum of Relevance and Revenue. We think there is a direct relationship between Relevance and the term “dumbing down”, such that more dumbing down is equivalent to less relevance. Now if you flip the Brown equation so that Revenue equals Ratings minus Relevance you can easily see that increased revenue cannot come about through increased Relevance, just the opposite. We would argue that Revenue and Relevance tend to be mutually exclusive. Therefore to achieve higher revenue from advertising you need higher ratings and this is achieved by presenting programs of more appeal but not necessarily more relevance – in other words “dumbed down.”
Brown strenuously rejects the notion that SBS is being “dumbed down” because he says no evidence has stated which programs have been affected. We can only conclude that either Brown has not paid attention to what people are saying or he must have a lower intellect than we imagined. We doubt it is that. There is a third alternative but we can’t publish that.
He says the station’s News service continues to have integrity, despite the introduction of advertising. Considering that almost half of the SBS News audience stopped watching SBS News during the latter part August 2007 (following the Mary Kostakidis walk out), we suggest that people just do not like the commercial approach. They feel cheated. It’s not just a matter of telling the truth or reporting the News, you must be seen to be telling the truth, with out fear or favour of commercial influence. Of course the average viewer has no way of knowing if someone, somewhere at SBS is influenced by a sponsor or not. It’s just safer to say: no ads in News. But then Save Our SBS believes that public broadcasting in Australia, ought to have no ads interrupting any programs. In fact all public broadcasters should be fully funded by government with no ads at all.
So is their any evidence that SBS is being dumbed down? This is a difficult concept for Brown to grasp because he is a facts and figures person. The problem for Brown is that due to his commercialisation approach, he is now locked into a way of thinking that people in commercial TV practice which may be appropriate for them but certainly not a public broadcaster. And that’s the comparison of ratings. Ratings merely show numbers of people watching. There is no provision in a typical ratings survey for the “people meter” to ask: “How would you rate the quality of the program? Was it better than what you saw last week or last year? Do you feel that the station overall is being dumbed down?” Ratings do not show an assessment of quality. Nor do they pretend to. So Brown’s statement that there is no evidence that SBS is being dumbed down has no credibility at all. If the public say, and they do say on mass by the thousands, that SBS is being dumbed down, then it is. Brown will live in denial.
Specifically a couple of examples we would cite of the dumbing down of SBS programs are The Movie Show and the World News Australia. The Movie Show formerly hosted by Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, has been reduced to a down-market presentation, part advertorial, part competition vehicle cross-linking with a highly commercial looking website. World News Australia had been extended to a one hour show with dual presenters who in true commercial network style are expected to bounce little witticisms, smiles and other irrelevances off each other as they alternate stories. The extended show has come at the expense of a dedicated sports show. Again in true commercial network style the presenters are promoted as the face of news, with the implication that the news is somehow better by virtue of the actual presenters.
The Deputy Chair of SBS, Gerald Stone who was not addressing the National Press Club recently said that many people who watched SBS wanted it to be for the elite. How do you counter the argument that SBS has been dumbed down? Easy: You just say “You only want it for the elite.” Stone was reported as telling The Australian: “Some of the people who seem to be our loudest opponents are those who saw SBS as a service for elites who were interested in seeing foreign language movies – that wasn’t our function at all.” Stone, who began at the ABC, spent most of life working for Packer at NINE. Stone recently wrote a book called: “Who Killed Channel Nine?”. A question from Save Our SBS to Stone is: “Who Killed SBS?” and “Who dumbed it down?” Whoever those people are, we think they should go.
Brown spoke of the “record ratings” with an audience share of “6 percent, as opposed to 5.4 percent”. Brown failed to mention a small oversight. The figures were skewed due to the high numbers of people watching special event broadcasts Tour de France and other sporting programs earlier in the year. The week before Brown’s address to the National Press Club, SBS rated 3 percent as a direct result of the commercialisation of SBS highlighted by the Kostakidis walkout. Read some of the comments about Kostakidis here on the Save Our SBS web site.
An old school friend of one of the writers of this editorial who had once worked with Brown recently warned that he is a master at pseudo statistics and spin, like a salesman without product. The observation was that Brown presents pseudo science and statistics that might sound good but really are quite meaningless. The claim by Brown that SBS now have a 6 percent audience share is one of those meaningless statistics: a rise by 0.6 percent is hardly worth a mention. Scientifically and mathematically and even commercially, an increase of a mere 0.6 percent it is considered to be insignificant. But Brown shuns this by saying “this is fastest growth in free to air TV”. What this does show yet again is that Brown is very focused on selling the notion of the commercial path as being a viable way for a public broadcaster to raise revenue. Brown cites RTE Ireland, CBC Canada, TVNZ New Zealand (where Brown previously worked), RAI Italy, France, Germany, other unnamed European broadcasters, and, Channel 4 in the UK. The problem with Brown’s argument is that it assumes that the path those broadcasters have gone down, is the right and proper path. It is not. In Canada alone the public have pleaded to go back to being non-commercial. But they have been ignored. Brown hopes the same for here. He fails to mention that many of those overseas public broadcasters that run advertisements, actually play them between programs only, like SBS used to, not in the program. Channel 4, although public and commercial but without shareholders, is unique in that it was set up under a totally different model, an experiment. The original intention was that it be funded by a percentage of revenue from all other broadcasters. Unlike SBS it was never intended to be funded by tax-payers. Channel 4 now run ads. So when Brown talks about public broadcasters in other countries running advertisements, it’s like comparing apples with oranges. Another one of his meaningless pseudo science statistics. The decision to run ads at these overseas public broadcasters was made by government. This is totally unlike the SBS decision where it was SBS who chose to interrupt programs for ad breaks. Why? An ideological attraction by Brown and the SBS Board to the commercial way of doing things.
Channel 4 in the UK is not at all like SBS. For a start Channel 4 is not a special broadcaster. It’s more like an experimental but comprehensive broadcaster. It’s sort of like across between our ABC and Channel 10. “Big Brother” is aired on Channel 4 in Britain. To compare SBS and Channel 4 is to also compare apples with oranges. The only similarity is that neither SBS nor Channel 4 have shareholders.
Outsourcing SBS (or privatisation by stealth or sub leasing the licence):
Brown said he does not believe that SBS should own studios all over Australia and make all its programs. Odd that he should say that as when SBS started most programs aired were imports. Brown said that recently SBS had moved to commissioning all of the programming, except news and current affairs, from the independent production sector [SBSi] to be outsourced to outside production companies. Typically that’s a commercial TV approach.
Unlike commercial TV, Brown said that SBS would start by outsourcing the SBS Presentation Department and play-out facilities to Red Bee Media.
We see this as yet another example of how Brown is obsessed with commercialising SBS.
Only people in the television industry would know that Presentation is the department that is responsible for the timing and the switching of all the programs and advertisements to air. Presentation is generally regarded as an area of very high concentration. They package the station as it goes to air. One slip up or on air “crash” could mean the loss of an ad play-out and loss of revenue. That’s the view taken in commercial TV. Presentation works is real-time, switching audio and vision at a precise moment, logging any fault reports and possible breaches of the licence etc. Presentation feeds into Master Control, who are responsible for technical quality but still everything that gets to air, goes via Presentation and there is no white out to fix a problem just gone through. Even if automated, pre-recorded or live, it’s still live to air cueing and switching. This high pressure work is like that of the captain of the ship, the gate-keeper, the watch-dog. The traditional view, even in commercial TV, has always been that it is the very department that ought never be outsourced because that might place the licensee (in this case SBS) at risk of being controlled by an outside organisation, rather than an employee, who does not have responsibility for the licence. Outsourcing Presentation could possibly be regarded as sub-leasing of the licence. In the past sub-leasing of a licence has been believed to be not allowable. We do not think that a good custodian of our public broadcaster, SBS, should even think of devolving so much control to a third party who is not the holder of the licence.
Brown says that SBS will lead the way in this outsourcing. Can you see the scenario? The outsourced Presentation Department runs too many ads or allows another breach to slip through but the Australian Communication & Media Authority (ACMA) have no power to take action against the culprit, the outsourced company, because they are not the holder of the (SBS) licence. Everyone will blame everyone else.
There is of course another reason for outsourcing. If everyone works for a different company, then SBS will have broken up the staff. It’s a way of disuniting everyone.
If SBS is outsourced to the extent that Brown wants, it poses the question: Who actually is SBS? Is it just a group of private companies?
4th Commercial TV Network:
Outsourcing may be only an early step in privatising SBS or selling it off.
Brown spoke about this saying he did not know who a prospective buyer of might be. He wondered: Who would buy SBS with its restrictive Charter? He hit the nail on the head. Brown is right. No-one. The answer is to find a buyer and then lobby to have the Charter changed, watered down or removed totally. And Brown gave just a hint of the restrictiveness of the Charter as he sees it as being at odds with his flawed interpretation that the SBS Act requires SBS to “raise an advertising revenue to a maximum of 5 minutes per hour” discussed above.
Brown said that if the government wanted a 4th commercial network, then the government could simply grant a 4th commercial licence. He failed to mention that current government policy is not to allow a 4th commercial network. So if SBS became that, commercial by stealth, all that is side stepped. SBS is already the 4th commercial network and the public strongly disapprove of this approach and the way Brown and the SBS Board have taken SBS down the commercial path.
Brown acknowledged that in his position of Managing Director he and the organisation should be held to account and “come under scrutiny” and believes “that we would fare rather well”.
We think that in reality Brown has pretty much ignored that. For an example of this, we suggest that Brown read: “SBS Complaint System Inadequate” on the Save Our SBS web site. Under Brown’s leadership, he has implemented a culture at SBS such that Brown and SBS now successfully avoid being scrutinised by anybody, least of all its viewers. And they have structured their Code of Practise and Guidelines For The Placement of Breaks in Television Programs so that it is almost impossible for a complaint to be allowed to be referred to the regulator, ACMA.
By his own admission of the evidence that he gives, Brown fails again to fully understand the value of public broadcasting. This is despite the fact that he spent all his broadcasting working life only ever working for public broadcasters, starting off at the ABC, then the NZBC, followed by the BBC, then TVNZ and now SBS. He admitted he was “riskier” than others. This is an under statement. We wonder if “destroyer of a public broadcasting asset” might be a better description? It seems that when Brown worked for the New Zealand public broadcaster he learnt much about how to, in our opinion, destroy, he would probably say, change, a broadcaster. Overnight it was taken from being a quality, non-commercial channel, to becoming the current fully-fledged-commercial station and among the worst TV, the most unwatchable television in the world. We don’t want our SBS destroyed by you Mr Brown. Not now or ever. The commercialisation, the ads in programs are all doing just that. He fails to see that.
At the National Press Club, Brown said he is the “current custodian of SBS”. Well Mr Brown, your constituents are telling you loud and clear, stop the ads and start doing some real, proper campaigning for more, for full, government funding.
Brown won’t do that. He said he “made no apology for” the decision to interrupt programs for ads. He admitted that, when that decision was made to interrupt programs for ads, he knew that SBS ran the risk of losing loyal viewers, which it now has. Despite this prior knowledge, the “custodian” of SBS was prepared to risk our SBS at the mercy of a commercial operation.
More than once Brown with conviction used the phrase: “I make no apologies for . . .”
That is the problem. Brown, being a person who reminded us that “he makes no apology” is just not able to admit that he (and the SBS Board led by chair Carla Zampatti) made a wrong decision when they decided to commercialise SBS, to interrupt programs for advertisements and dumb it down. However Brown does not believe it has been dumbed down. If the custodian cannot admit his mistakes, when they are so obvious to everyone else, then that person ought to be removed from their position of custodian.
And Brown continues to make no apology for the ads in News or any other program.
We don’t believe you Shaun.
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