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SBS Bill details: how disruptions could end on SBS-TV

Greens Communications spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam has introduced a private Bill that, if passed, would gradually phase out commercial breaks from interrupting SBS television programs by 2016.

When introducing the Bill, Senator Ludlam made clear it was intended to bring advertising practices back into line with Parliament’s original intentions when debating the SBS Act in 1991.

The Senator said SBS received less than a quarter of the ABC’s budget before pointing out that the station had moved-arguably in contradiction of its Act, to full in-program advertising and that this situation had not only damaged SBS and created considerable viewer discontent, it has led to successive government’s getting away with structural under-funding.

Senator Ludlam said the Bill sought to “reverse the tide of commercialisation before declining advertising revenues and rising viewer discontent force a crisis on the broadcaster.”

The Bill still allows SBS to carry 5 minutes of advertising each hour. Eventually ads would only be allowed between programs and in live sports programs. Radio would not be affected.

The Special Broadcasting Service Amendment (Natural Program Breaks and Disruptive Advertising) Bill 2012 has three timelines.

The first begins on 1 January 2013. This is when a legislated definition would apply to the phrase “natural program breaks”. That would be a break in a program that was intended by the maker of the program. It is difficult to argue against that. The definition will protect SBS from false claims that it ‘forces’ breaks where not intended.

The current SBS Act states SBS may place advertisements in natural program breaks but fails to give a definition. That’s the ‘loophole’ that SBS used to force in-program advertisements often in highly questionable and disruptive positions.

In the past SBS was criticised for ‘forcing’ breaks into programs although SBS has always denied this. At a Senate Estimates Hearing Senator Conroy said that the current SBS-penned definition of a “natural program break” was “inconsistent with the intent of the limits that the legislation attempted to set”. Over time, the Bill would virtually return SBS to that intended by the legislators.

Many television programs are constructed and supplied to television stations – in a broken format – ready for insertion of commercial breaks at pre-selected positions by the maker of the program. In the future, this would be the only place where SBS would be allowed to place their breaks. That’s far more sensible than the current arrangement where the broadcaster at times appears to cut into programs at will. Nothing in the Bill requires SBS to take all the available breaks.

The second timeline begins on 1 January 2014. From that date SBS would be allowed to place one break only in each television program – in the position defined above for a natural break. Sports programs would have no limit on the number of natural program breaks. Exemption for sport was requested by SBS to enable coverage of their big events like the FIFA World Cup and La Tour De France. It is also consistent with the original intentions of Parliament when SBS became a corporation in 1991.

At that time, SBS promised the Parliament that a natural program break would be strictly limited to “half-time in a soccer match”. . .  “in effect what will happen is that advertising will top and tail programs”. SBS held to this promise for many years.

Hansard, in 1991, conveys a sense of nervousness from all politicians about opening up SBS to carry advertising. Then National MP, Mr Sinclair summed it up by saying “let us not try to get the advertising revenue that will make the SBS another commercial channel. If we do, again, that will change its character, and I do not think that is really what we are about”.

The 1991 Parliament’s concerns were eventually resolved by the inclusion of the well explained and understood phrase – natural program breaks. Labor MP, Mr Lee expressed the outcome very clearly when describing these breaks as “advertisement–at the beginning and the end of the sponsored program. In that way the viewers were not disturbed and were not constantly interrupted, as is the case on some of the commercial television programs”.

But the original intentions of the Parliament were largely set aside by SBS in late 2006 when it began to disrupt all television programs with advertising and sponsorship breaks. Senator Ludlam’s Bill is a good attempt to gradually restore SBS to that intended when it was corporatized in 1991.

The Bill does not place any restrictions on the number of breaks between programs.

During the second timeline, the Bill offers SBS an ‘incentive’ to shift the commercial content out of program to a break between programs. If SBS does that, they would be allowed to use specified funding for that purpose from monies already appropriated. This offset would be a virtual government ‘buy-out’ of the in-program advertising but only for night time programs (6pm to 2am) where SBS chose not to place any breaks in a program.

Although the Bill would allow SBS to place a break in a program – if that’s what SBS wants – they wouldn’t be able to reconcile the government offset. In an age where governments are reluctant to over-regulate, this Bill does not punish for non-compliance. The Bill is not about government intervention. Far from it. It’s more about supporting SBS with a financial incentive to broadcast some programs without disruptions, from 1 January 2014. This will lead into the third timeline.

Unless proclaimed earlier, by 1 January 2016, SBS television would not be allowed to place any in-program breaks in television programs, except for sport.

The Bill is a much needed circuit breaker for both SBS and the viewing public, considering the growth rate from advertising on SBS-TV has been declining since 2008 and negative since 2010. Given the current and forecast financial gloom with regards to SBS television advertising revenues, this Bill could be a life-saver for SBS. It would be grossly irresponsible not to publicly support this Bill. Among other things, Senator Ludlam said the Bill will protect what a considerable number of Australians-including non SBS viewers-regard as one of this country’s most valuable cultural and social assets – our multicultural broadcaster.

Save Our SBS welcomes the Special Broadcasting Service Amendment (Natural Program Breaks and Disruptive Advertising) Bill 2012. It’s fair, sensible and not heavy handed. It will be debated and voted on in later in the year.

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