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“Come Clean On Commercialisation” by Quentin Dempster

SaveOurSBS has been granted permission to re-publish the story below in full by Quentin Dempster. It originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of the Walkley Magazine.

Come Clean On Commercialisation” by Quentin Dempster

With the federal election campaign already in full swing Quentin Dempster previews the policy debate about the future of public broadcasting.

“Stiff and stiffer.” Those erectile dysfunction ads on SBS television are helping to spotlight the Howard government’s insidious agenda for public broadcasting in Australia.

The 2004 Liberal Party election manifesto made no mention of stretching or reinterpreting the SBS Act’s definition of “natural breaks”. From 1992, when advertising was introduced at SBS through an amendment to the SBS Act, the SBS board’s consistent legal advice was that “natural breaks” meant ads could only be broadcast between programs, not during them, with the possible exception of lengthy sporting coverage. That interpretation prevailed from 1992 to 2007. Last year the [Carla] Zampatti-chaired board at SBS overruled that 15-year internal legal advice to seek an external counsel’s opinion.

That process produced for the SBS board a legal opinion that “natural breaks” could be interpreted as meaning convenient spots within programs. Equipped with this highly questionable and still legally untested opinion, the SBS board, without advance notice or consultation with its audience, set about turning SBS television into a fully commercial channel.

In fact, the Zampatti board’s business plan is to turn SBS Television into Australia’s fourth free-to-air commercial channel.

Don’t take my word for it. An eagle-eyed informant, knowing my aversion to commercialising public broadcasting in Australia, spotted the SBS business strategy in B&T, the advertising industry magazine.

On January 17, just as SBS was to start broadcasting ads through its new hour-long news, documentaries, feature films and other programs, B&T told the advertising and marketing industry that SBS was out “to position SBS as Australia’s fourth commercial network”.

B&T quoted SBS commercial director Richard Finlayson: “We have tended to fly under the radar and people just have not taken us seriously. Our long-term agenda is that we do not want people to just think about the three commercial networks but SBS as well. We are now taking a more aggressive approach to communicating our message and particularly with building our relationships with key media.”

The Zampatti board has embarked on this fully commercial business plan with the informal agreement of the Howard government that appointed it.

Again, this fundamental change to the role and funding of SBS within the broadcast media was not in the ruling Liberal Party’s 2004 election manifesto.

The Howard government has no mandate from the Australian people to do this. The communications minister, Helen Coonan, says advertising within programs at SBS is a matter for the “independent” SBS board. But when the other commercial television networks realise what is in play, the minister, and undoubtedly the prime minister, will suffer the wrath of those competing in a now very tight free-to-air TV advertising market. Was it government policy to impose a fourth fully commercial television channel by stealth when Coonan’s recently announced media reforms ruled out such a channel?

The Zampatti board will say that the Special Broadcasting Service Act caps advertising at just five minutes an hour, unlike Seven, Nine and Ten, which can broadcast up to 15 minutes an hour. But after bludgeoning the SBS audience with in-program advertising and achieving their reluctant acceptance, it is only a matter of time before the board seeks the removal of the cap.

The ethnic communities of Australia, for which SBS was created by the Fraser government (1975-83), have almost given up on SBS. With its ratings-chasing programming in sport and the replacement of all foreign language programming with English language programs in prime time, SBS seems to have abandoned its original charter to enhance its commercial revenue. It is now rejigging its news and current affairs output to adopt a more “commercial feel”.

There needs to be an important reassessment of the future of SBS. The taxpayers of Australia, who have invested ten of millions of dollars each year in SBS, should be consulted. The ABC would have a stronger case to merge with SBS and take on its multicultural charter obligations through the internet, digital multi-channel free-to-air television and digital radio, if the ABC were not already infected with the commercial virus. This virus has been injected into its veins by the Howard government through the [Maurice] Newman board.

The Newman board has restructured the ABC divisions, replacing ABC Enterprises (which manages ABC Shops and other related products) with what it is calling ABC Commercial.

With the ABC Act expressly prohibiting advertising on ABC radio and television, ABC Commercial wants to construct a new business plan around cybercast advertising on ABC Online. Broadcasting is rapidly morphing into cybercasting. If you miss tonight’s edition of The 7.30 Report, ABC TV News, or any other ABC copyright program, soon you will be able to go to your computer and play the full digital video at any time. People are already watching the popular The Chaser’s War on Everything and Four Corners’ broadband editions through their internet.

There is nothing in the ABC Act to prevent the Newman board from inserting advertising in and around this content.

The spirit of the ABC Act, drafted in 1983 before the internet was invented, is clearly against advertising. But the board has helpful legal advice that because the act is silent on internet advertising, there is nothing in the act to prevent cybercast advertising. (Lawyers. Don’t you just love ’em?)

Again the Howard government, through Coonan, says it is a matter for the ABC board. But the government has no mandate from the Australian people to distort the existing funding base of the ABC and, through the commercial imperative this will create, its very purpose.

Public broadcasters view their audiences as citizens in a democracy to be informed, engaged and challenged through innovative, high-quality and comprehensive programming, not as consumers to be delivered up to advertisers.

Both the ABC and SBS boards will say enhanced commercial returns will mean more Australian programming. This is superficially attractive. But what sort of programming? Mark Scott, the ABC’s new managing director, is a former editorial director of John Fairfax Holdings Ltd. We are told his Fairfax experience demonstrates that it is possible to separate church and state — editorial from commercial. This was rubbish at Fairfax and will be rubbish at the ABC. Just read Fred Hilmer’s book, The Fairfax Experience (Wrightbooks, $32.95).

Hilmer, the former Fairfax chief executive (and Scott’s mentor), set about transforming The Sydney Morning Herald and the other papers with multipleadvertorial sections and high-gloss magazines and inserts, getting maximum display advertising bang for the distribution buck. In the process Hilmer squeezed the space available for and investment in news and quality journalism. The revenue imperative (the state) overruled editorial (the church).

Fairfax now allows advertising stickers to obliterate its front-page headline. Did the editor ever object, at least to symbolically protect the paper’s editorial integrity on behalf of readers who buy the paper for its news?

Cybercast advertising at the ABC will be self-defeating. When push comes to shove in the pre-Budget Cabinet expenditure review committee, treasury advisers will monitor the ABC’s commercial revenue and downwardly adjust the taxpayer appropriation accordingly.

We now await the federal election campaign with interest. The future of public broadcasting should be on the agenda so that the Australian public can at least feel it is being consulted about its taxpayer investment in this sector.

The ABC board should have a transition strategy in the event that, as the polls now consistently indicate, there is a change of government. It should be telling the public just what the ABC can do for Australia through the digital free-to-air multi-channel and broadband revolution.

The ABC could have an ABC Education division with a free-to-air English and other languages channel, a technical and further education channel, a dedicated Australian-made children’s channel and other nation-building services which exploit this extraordinary and exciting technology. But the new chairman has not said “boo” on any important topic of strategic importance to the ABC since his appointment last year.

The current ABC board cannot be relied on to advocate the cause of independent public broadcasting. It is in an ideological and party-political bog. If it is out to destroy the so-called ABC culture; introducing advertising on the ABC should do the trick.
The current threat is insidious.

Our minds must be clear. Labor policy announced this month is to prohibit cybercast advertising, stop the party-political stack of the ABC board and restore the staff-elected director position in the ABC Act. This is most welcome in an institution which has been under sustained ideological attack and vilification for more than a decade. But it is also hard to forget that under the Hawke/Keating governments 1983-1996 the ABC was substantially defunded. Pressure must be maintained on any incoming Rudd Labor government to rebuild the ABC’s creative capacity and to protect the multicultural purpose of SBS.

In this regard, we need to know exactly what Kevin Rudd and Rupert Murdoch discussed at their New York meeting in April. Murdoch does not give photo ops to wannabe prime ministers without securing policy undertakings or, more euphemistically, understandings.

Murdoch would want extended indefinitely the outrageous regulatory protections for his 25 per cent share in the now highly profitable Foxtel pay-TV. He’d also be seeking ways in which he and James Packer could wrest the other 50 per cent of Foxtel away from Telstra without having to pay an extortionate price. He would also want the ABC to be further marginalised, just as public broadcasting is marginalised in the US.

Where would public broadcasting stand in the event of a change of government in Canberra? Please let us know, Mr Rudd. In the meantime, those who want the ABC to survive as an adequately funded, independent, mainstream and non-commercial public broadcaster will have to fight hard.

We must never get tired.

Quentin Dempster is a journalist, author and ABC broadcaster. In June 2006 he was elected to the ABC board as staff-elected director. The position was subsequently abolished by the Howard government. Due to format compatibility SaveOurSBS has not included the cartoons by Lindsay Foyle who is a pocket cartoonist for The Australian. The original story with the cartoons can be viewed at Walkley Magazine.

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5 comments to “Come Clean On Commercialisation” by Quentin Dempster

  • 1. The impact of advertising on the SBS.

    There have been major changes to the SBS since the introduction of advertising, but they have not happened overnight. We can chart developments at the SBS since strictly limited advertising was introduced in 1992-3.

    * 1992
    SBS Managing Director Brian Johns moves programs in languages other than English (LOTE) out of prime time as advertising is about to start. [i] Subsequent chief executives maintain the practice of English language domination of prime time, with LOTE programs broadcast either in the mornings, afternoons, or late at night, when many people would be at work, asleep, or otherwise occupied.
    * March 2003
    SBS management is involved in a dispute with its own journalists over the introduction of advertising into news programs, which had previously been exempt. MEAA NSW secretary says 40 journalists had written to management claiming that sponsorship of news and current affairs programs compromised editorial integrity and could result in reporters being disciplined or fired for airing unfavourable stories about advertisers. [ii]
    * November 2003
    More key staff to leave. “Since the arrival in January of former Television New Zealand (TVNZ) executive Shaun Brown as the head of television, there has been a succession of changes on and off screen at the Special Broadcasting Service. At first they seemed incremental. But over the past few months, long-established people and programs have been removed or relocated, new line-ups have been launched and pivotal programs reshaped. Since August 2002, the head of television has left, the chief programmer has resigned and the head of internal production has been told his job no longer exists”. [iii]
    * December 2003
    The Federation of Ethnic Communities Council says that SBS has lost its way. FECCA Chairman Abd Malak claims “The only people who like SBS TV now are the cappuccino crowd — well-educated, middle-class people, it’s mainly sex and soccer, I think” He added that his organisation was “very close to giving up on SBS TV…..In the last three or four years they have separated themselves from ethnic communities. They don’t come to our functions or religious festivals”
    The dismissive, not to say insulting, response from SBS Managing Director Nigel Milan was “We’re not going to cover the clog dancing from Brisbane Town Hall.” [iv]
    * January 2004.
    The Age’s media writer Ross Warneke comments on the banishment of non-English programs from prime time. “The bulk of its ‘ethnic content’ these days is its morning news marathon, with hour after hour of foreign language news services relayed from everywhere from Manila to Madrid”. [v]
    * May 2004
    Staff become disenchanted. The Age’s Debi Enker writes that SBS staff fear “that the search for a broader audience is leading to the acquisition and commissioning of programs that are ‘safer and blander’, that SBS will become ‘a poor man’s version of a commercial network rather than providing a challenging alternative’. The harshest critics fear SBS will end up looking like a second-rate cable-TV station, running reality TV shows and English-language drama series that the free-to-air channels have rejected as either being too limited in their appeal or too provocative.” [vi]
    * June 2004
    SBS joins with commercial broadcasters to oppose the tightening of restrictions on tobacco advertising through the insidious practice of product placement. [vii]
    * October 2004
    SBS joins with the existing commercial stations to restrict competition and to argue against the granting of an additional free to air TV licence. The reason — more competition would impact on their advertising income. [viii]
    * November 2004
    Veteran SBS film critic Margaret Pomeranz, who together with co-host David Stratton deserted SBS for the ABC comments:
    ”I think that the current management has a much more commercial bent than any previous management. They seem to be after the young female demographic, and I worry about this, because this is a demographic already catered to in excess on the commercial television stations. SBS was meant to broaden the scope of television in this country, extend what was already available, or that was always my vision of it. And I think it was the vision of a lot of people there as well. We were so little we didn’t rate very well, although during the ‘90s under Peter Cavanagh, our ratings increased at really a remarkable rate. And for all of this new direction towards a more commercial bent, young female demographic, SBS is appealing to less viewers than it did before.” [ix]
    * June 2005
    George Zangalis, President of the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council, and a former member of the SBS board, issues a media release criticizing the direction of SBS TV. He says, “The SBS was established as a multicultural broadcaster, but has been moving away from its original charter. Programming in community languages has shrunk, while English programming has grown. Advertising has increased and become increasingly strident. Rather than focusing on different cultures, the SBS seems to be moving towards mainstream sports like cricket and now AFL. There is plenty of this type of programming on the ABC and the three commercial channels.” [x]

    * August 2005.
    When first introduced, advertising on SBS is limited to five minutes per hour, and is not permitted to interrupt programs. It can only be used to top and tail programs. There are media reports that the SBS Board wants these restrictions lifted, and Managing Director Nigel Milan commissions a confidential survey on possible audience reactions to program interruptions. [xi] However the government does not remove the ban on advertisements interrupting programs. The experience of the early history of advertising in the US is relevant here.

    * February 2006.
    The SBS confirms the complaint made by George Zangalis, President of the Ethnic Broadcasters Council, in June 2005, that SBS advertising has increased and become increasingly strident. SBS’s director of commercial affairs, Richard Finlayson says that the broadcaster has reviewed “the type of ads it will and will not accept. In the past SBS has been reluctant to carry some ads, such as hard-hitting, in-your-face retails ads. That’s changing” [xii]

    2. How corporate underwriting changed to sponsorship and then became full blown advertising — the U.S. experience.

    Sometimes “sponsorship” or “corporate underwriting” is raised as a more palatable alternative to brash and hard-sell advertisements. What is wrong, it has been asked, about “The Macquarie Bank Einstein Factor” — a simple announcement at the front of the program that it is supported by the Macquarie Bank?

    There are three things that concern Friends of the ABC, and many listeners and viewers, about advertising:

    First there is the concern that advertising will distort programming priorities.

    Second there is the concern that managers and program makers will be wary of airing any criticism of important advertisers — it can act as an unseen form of censorship.

    Third is the irritation factor — advertisements are often unduly loud, repetitive, and disruptive of the program’s flow.

    Simple corporate underwriting of the “Macquarie Bank Einstein Factor” kind would be less susceptible to the third concern, but is in no way exempt from the first two concerns. Moreover such corporate underwriting would attract only a fraction of the income that “real advertising” would bring, thus defeating part of the purpose.

    An account of how corporate underwriting gradually transformed into sponsorship and then into full blown advertising in the United States is relevant here.

    Advertising first appeared on the SBS in 1992-3, and its effect has indeed been gradual. However the same was true about advertising in the United States, where it took some ten years to make its real impact felt. When it started, in the 1920s, it was genteel and low key, but by the 1930s it was crass, loud and aggressive.

    Advertising was not the main support for radio in its early days in the US. David Sarnoff, of RCA for example, advocated a tax on radio receivers, as a way of supporting broadcasting. Some stations were funded by colleges and universities. Others received support from philanthropists. However advertising grew steadily, if slowly at first.

    Initially it was very discreet. Prices were never mentioned. The mention of personal items, like toothpaste, mouth wash or underclothes was taboo. Companies attached their names to entertainers, like the Ipana Troubadours, the Browning-King Orchestra and the Goodrich Silvertown Orchestra. There was no mention that Ipana made toothpaste, Browning King made overalls and Goodrich made tires, let alone any suggestion that listeners should buy these products. A strict ban on the mention of prices and store locations remained. The broadcasting lobby group, The National Association of Broadcasters, proposed that sponsorship announcements be banned from prime time listening, on the basis that it was family listening time.

    All this changed with the 1929 crash. CBS, one of the major networks was in trouble. George Washington Hill, President of American Tobacco, came to the rescue. Cremo cigars were suffering from rumours that they were made with spit. He needed to counter the rumours, and was prepared to pay. CBS capitulated, and in between tunes from the Cremo Military Band an announcer shouted: “There is no spit in Cremo.” NBC soon followed suit, sponsorship became advertising, and aggressive. [xiii]

    International experience has clearly shown that advertising impacts on the program priorities of public service broadcasters. [xiv] Despite the fact that advertising accounts for only 15% of SBS income, its impact has by now become clear.

    Darce Cassidy, February 2006

    [i] Brian Johns, ‘SBS: Coping with a Strange Idea’, in Multicultural Australia: The Challenges of Change, D. Goodman et al. Carlton, Scribe, 1991

    [ii] Kylie Walker, SBS clashes with journalists over ads, The Age, 9 March 2003

    [iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2003

    [iv] Christopher Kremmer, Ethnic groups find SBS sex and soccer a turn off, SMH 20 December, 2003

    [v] Ross Warneke, Public broadcasters face big year, The Age, 8 January 2004

    [vi] Debi Enker, Where to now, SBS?, The Age, 27 May 2004

    [vii] Letter from Julie Eisenberg, SBS Head of Policy, to Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, 17 June, 2004

    [viii] Provision of Commercial Television Broadcasting Services after 31 December 2006, SBS Submission to the Department of Information Technology, Communications and the Arts, October 2004

    [ix] Radio National Media Report, 4 November 2004

    [x] NEMBC Media Release, 8 June 2005

    [xi] Errol Simper, Borrowed time up for Milan, The Australian, 11 August 2005

    [xii] Neil Shoebridge, FIFA world cup kicks off SBS ad sales, Australian Financial Review, 27 February 2006

    [xiii] Erik Barnouw, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, Vol 1, New York, OUP, 1966

    [xiv] McKinsey and Co, Public service broadcasters around the world, London, 1999 (mimeo)

    [The above comment was originally published by Darce Cassidy from Friends of the ABC in February 2006, prior to the implementation of the current SBS policy to insert advertising within programs. Save Our SBS thanks Darce for resubmitting it here. Ed.]

  • elizabetho

    This is what I sent to the SBS Board following recent events = as well as signing the petition, send off a message to their comment site –

    To: comments@sbs.com.au

    Subject: Mary Kostakidis

    Hi – my name is Elizabeth xxxx and I’d like to offer a comment on recent events at SBS. I agree with Mary and I have “walked” too, no longer watching SBS as much because of the advertisements that interrupt even the most serious and sensitive of programme material.

    I don’t know where the present Board and its CEO got their brief to change SBS this way, particularly dumbing down the News with the ridiculous use of 2 presenters playing at being cheery friends. It’s an insult to the viewers and all these changes show with what contempt the Board and senior management hold the viewers. Australia needs another vacuous “commercial” TV channel like it needs a hole in the head. The complex structure and culture that was SBS has been taken over and trashed by vandals – what a great legacy for the board members to be remembered for. Thanks a lot.

  • TVwatcher

    I just read an interview with George Negus, presenter of SBS Dateline in The Age on-line (http://www.theage.com.au/news/tv–radio/negus-fumes-over-sbs-criticism/2007/09/05/1188783247452.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1). I was very disappointed in his attitude about the commercialisation of SBS. However I haven’t seen Dateline for a while. I more or less stopped watching it when SBS began interrupting it for commercial breaks. Probably the quality of the actual program content of Dateline might remain high but I am not prepared to be sold out by Shaun Brown to those dam annoying interruptions for the commercials. From reading the interview with Mr Negus in The Age it seems that he does not think that SBS has been dumbed down or at least he does not know what is meant by the phrase “dumbing down” and he asked “What does it actually mean?” I wonder if George might have missed the point.

    It’s not just the quality of some of the programs that SBS has dumbed down SBS has also been dumbed down by the mere fact that they now interrupt all the TV programs with commercials. It’s unbearable.

    The changes made at the start of this year to World News 6:30 edition — the silly social chit chat and the forced smiles that the presenters seemed to have been told to do; the Movie Show being cut from a quality half hour show to an insulting 12 minute fill in type show being not much more than an advertorial for the program’s web site which is so blatantly cluttered with ads it is actually unreadable.

    I stopped watching World News 6:30 edition a while back. I gave the Movie Show a go for a while after Margaret & David left but when SBS degenerated it into a fill in show I gave up. Now I find I am watching less and less SBS and more and more ABC.

    The overall program line-up is just not as good as it used to be either. It all seemed to begin with the introduction of that very commercial looking program, the Iron Chef. They don’t even subtitle it. It was barely bearable when there no ad breaks in it. Now we have to put up not just with the added hype and annoyance of ad interruptions but also with American dubbed voices instead of SBS subtitles! How cheap and commercial looking and sounding can you get? The recipes might be good but the way SBS presents the Iron Chef has turned me off.

    Where’s the opera? Where are the arts type programs? Has SBS dumped these forever?

    There is now a long list of programs that are just have either been removed, buried in the wrong time slot late at night or are just plain crappy. I think SBS have lost the plot if they want to appeal to a wider audience. I thought that was what the other TV channels were supposed to do, not SBS.

    I really feel quite upset that a handful of people have ‘stolen’ my SBS from us, the public. I don’t care if I’m accused of being elitist. So what? What’s wrong with being elitist anyway? We have boutique clothing shops and other elite things in life. I don’t want to watch crappy commercial type TV.

    Even the quality of the ads on SBS now looks crappy too. The ads on SBS used to be of a higher quality. They were soft sell art style type ads that blended in between programs. Not anymore.

    By the way: I did not switch off SBS when it used to run the advertisements between the programs only. Did Shaun Brown ever provide any proof that that is what the viewers did or is it just that the advertisers will pay more to interrupt a program? Sounds like we viewers have been sold out to the advertisers. Now it’s their station not ours.

    I used to enjoy SBS. In my opinion Shaun Brown and the SBS Board have a lot to answer for. I want them to hand back our SBS so it is run the way it used to be.

  • brianpearson

    I agree with every word written by TVwatcher [above]. There is no point in my repeating them. It is sufficient simply to add that they would probably be endorsed by every person who is motivated enough to visit this site (http://www.SaveOurSBS.org).

    I would think that a promise by Kevin Rudd to remove political interference, advertising and excessive promotions from the ABC and SBS, and adequately to fund both organizations from the public purse with no strings attached would alone win him enough extra votes to carry every marginal seat in the country.

    I hope that the current executives and board of SBS will be sent packing as soon as possible.

  • Save Our SBS

    You can read the full Post from the top of the screen, leading with: “Come Clean On Commercialisation” by Quentin Dempster and all the blog comments that follow or just write your own comment below.

    Do you think that if Kevin Rudd were to promise to remove all advertising and excessive promotions from SBS, and adequately to fund [it] from the public purse with no strings attached the ALP would win every marginal seat in the country?

    Do you agree or disagree?

    Would you vote for a party that made such a promise?

    (If you are not sure how to Register or Login to become a ‘blogger’ please read: “How To Browse This Web Site, Register & Comment” and “How To Register And Become A Blogger On SaveOurSBS” which you will find about half way down the Home Page: http://www.SaveOurSBS.org then return here to write your commnet).

    Would you vote for a party that promised to fully fund SBS and stop the advertising?

    Write your comment below.