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“Dear SBS: ad breaks just don’t hold water” by Michael Shmith

SaveOurSBS has been granted permission to re-publish the story below in full by Michael Shmith. It originally appeared in The Age on 10 February 2007.

Dear SBS: ad breaks just don’t hold water” by  Michael Shmith

A good 25 years ago, when SBS was still called Channel 0 and ran series such as Three Women and their Hot-Dog Stand, it had the curious habit of interrupting films halfway through with promotions for other films and programs. At the time, I was editing The Age Green Guide, and we ran a small campaign to ban the break. The network’s excuse, that viewers needed it for natural reasons, did not hold water with us or the viewers, and eventually films ran straight through, as they do in the cinema.

I thought of this the other night when, Campari and soda to hand, I watched the first 20 minutes of Inspector Montalbano, SBS’s excellent Italian-made police series. Being a middle-aged, bald, bad-tempered journalist, I find it easy to identify with Salvo Montalbano, a middle-aged, bald, bad-tempered police inspector, and a Sicilian to boot. There was the obligatory corpse, calamari lunch for the eternally hungry Salvo, and — easy, now — an advertisement break.

While the inspector (had he been alongside, watching a program about himself) would be doing a passable imitation of Mount Etna, I simply drained the Campari and, with the sigh of a dying sirocco, turned the television off. I sat, gloomily contemplating the hopelessness of those within the Special Broadcasting Service who, while not yet sleeping with the fishes, should still receive the traditional Luca Brasi warning of several hundredweight of old halibut wrapped in a bulletproof vest.

I am probably in the minority; a single pixel among millions of others who don’t mind commercials and, indeed, watch films on commercial television for as long as six minutes at a stretch, or relish a friendly voice-over during final credits, telling one what’s coming up next, tomorrow, next week … Torture people long enough, they fall in love with their captors.

Not me. Commercial television has long been a special hell. The ABC and SBS (provided one can ignore the watermarks in the corner of the screen) at least had uninterrupted programs, as the ABC continues to do. SBS, alas, now has its “new structure”, designed, it says, to bring in extra revenue and designed, I say, to infuriate what’s left of a faithful viewing public. As one of them, I feel betrayed.

The SBS website contains the guidelines for the placement of breaks in its programs. They are restricted to no more than five minutes in any hour of broadcasting; an accompanying list of program categories, showing when or where breaks should occur — drama and comedy, documentaries, entertainment, competitions, music, news and current affairs, sport and three miscellaneous categories. Each is preceded with the words “natural breaks”; a phrase ominously close, though with different emphasis, to the network’s original reasoning for breaks in its films.

I’m afraid, for various reasons, this doesn’t hold water, either. First of all, I don’t care if it’s five instead of 15 minutes an hour: a break is still an interruption, regardless of its nature or length, and, as the well-mannered know, it is rude to interrupt. In November, in an address to a conference in Canberra, SBS’s managing director, Shaun Brown, gave the main reasons for the changes. In essence:

1. Long breaks — sometimes as long as eight minutes — between programs are not working and are losing audiences who don’t stay for the next program.

2. Viewers do not see promotions for forthcoming programs.

3. Advertisers receive big discounts for appearing between programs; therefore the network is losing a potential $10 million a year.

Therefore, Brown summarised, “All of these problems are addressed by these changes. Shorter breaks between programs means better audience flow, promos inside programs means viewers are learning of other content that may appeal to them, and we are projecting a significant increase in revenue from this change, which will go directly into multicultural programming.”

To which, were I Salvo Montalbano, I would quote a Sicilian proverb: ” Cu lu vinnri e lu cumprari, nun c’è amici nè cumpari”, which, loosely translated, means “When there’s buying or selling, there are no friends”. Audience flow, better or otherwise, is of little concern to me; promos within programs are disruptive, and why can’t I consult the Green Guide, anyway?; and, whatever happens to extra revenue, it means more programs to interrupt.

SBS may claim it is within the rights of its charter to do so. I have as much right to see it as an invasion. Only a few of the barbarian horde have been let in, but it is enough.

Michael Shmith is a senior writer at The Age. The original story can be viewed at The Age.

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1 comment to “Dear SBS: ad breaks just don’t hold water” by Michael Shmith

  • Giacomo

    Argh dear Michael Shmith

    I share your sentiment that “ad breaks just don’t hold water” and your love it seems of the SBS’s excellent series, Inspector Montalbano.

    Hell hath no fury like an audience spurned!