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“SBS debate: 4th commercial network?” by Quentin Dempster

SaveOurSBS has been granted permission to re-publish the story below in full by Quentin Dempster. It originally appeared in The Australian 23 August 2007.

SBS debate: 4th commercial network?” by Quentin Dempster

THE Zampatti board at SBS has embarked on a strategy to turn SBS television into Australia’s fourth commercial channel.

In the January issue of B&T, the advertising industry magazine, SBS commercial director Richard Finlayson confirmed SBS was out “to position SBS as Australia’s fourth commercial network”.

This helped to explain why the board last year obtained legal advice from external counsel to overturn a 15-year-old internal legal ruling that advertising in “natural breaks” meant ads were permissible between programs, not within them.

I understand from industry sources that advertising guru John Singleton helped devise the commercial transformation of the public broadcaster to enhance ad revenues.

The Zampatti board has embarked on this fully commercial business planwith the informal agreement of the Howard Government that appointed it.

This fundamental change to the role and funding of SBS within the broadcast media industry was not in the ruling Liberal Party’s 2004 election manifesto. The Howard Government has no mandate to do this, particularly when Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s recent media reforms specifically ruled out a fourth commercial network.

Now the board will say that the SBS 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 having bludgeoned 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. Mary Kostakidis’s distressing dispute with her employer exposes the strategy to turn SBS into a fourth fully commercial network by stealth.

Now while the salivating Harold Mitchells of this world see great opportunities to place more advertising like those benign prostate commercials before SBS’s over-50s audience, there now needs to be a fundamental rethink about the future of SBS. It is meant to be a public broadcaster with clear multicultural charter obligations. It has turned its prime-time TV into a revenue hunter with sport, a more commercial feel to its one-hour news and English-language-only programming.

The SBS board has lost the plot.

With 120,000 migrants coming into Australia each year we are a long way from being a monoculture. The public purpose of an ethnic broadcaster is still very relevant in 21st century Australia.

A broadcaster who understands the need for a sense of inclusiveness for all non-English speaking migrants by broadcasting programs in their own languages while also helping them to learn English and assimilate is a national priority.

If the SBS board wants to abandon its legislated duty, perhaps it is time for the ABC to offer to merge with or take over all SBS’s multi-language radio and television programs and services in the national interest. But without the ads.

Quentin Dempster is an ABC broadcaster and public broadcasting advocate. The original story can be viewed at The Australian.

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1 comment to “SBS debate: 4th commercial network?” by Quentin Dempster

  • 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.