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SBS Forced 6000 Ad Breaks

In 2007 SBS-TV forced almost 6000 commercial breaks into some 2000 program broadcasts that were never intended to have commercial breaks. Programs made for non-commercial networks, such as the BBC, were interrupted for ads when screened on SBS-TV. In the public interest, Save Our SBS is publishing the times to air and title of every program where SBS-TV forced an interruption for an ad break, when one was never intended by the program as originally supplied to SBS. Save Our SBS is of the opinion that such breaks were hardly natural.

A log of the full list of programs that SBS-TV forced commercial break interruptions into, is available at the conclusion of this story. See below.

The SBS Act allows for SBS to broadcast advertisements in natural program breaks however the Act does not define a natural program break. Until late 2006, SBS-TV only broadcast ads between programs. The break between programs was considered to be a safe definition of a natural break. But in 2007, SBS-TV interrupted almost every program for advertisements making SBS appear more like a commercial broadcaster instead of the public multicultural broadcaster that it was intended to be.

In September 2006 SBS re-wrote their Codes of Practice and created a document titled the (SBS) Guidelines For The Placement of Breaks in Television Programs September 2006 in which the SBS Board created their own definition of a natural break. The SBS definition has never been tested in the courts.

Although many complained when the broadcaster began interrupting program for commercial breaks, people were dissatisfied on discovery that SBS is only required to consider a complaint that falls within the Codes of Practise. The placement of ads is outside the Codes and, the regulator, ACMA, has no power to deal with a complaint that is outside the Codes. There remains no proper process to resolve a complaint about SBS interrupting a program for advertisement breaks.

But in August 2007, thousands of loyal SBS viewers protested in support of Mary Kostakidis when the long time news presenter, walked from the station as the broadcaster pursued the commercial approach.

Save Our SBS quickly put together a petition calling for a ban on advertising on SBS and adherence to the SBS Charter. 5000 signatures were sought. More than 7000 people signed before the petition was closed. The petition was handed to the Minister’s office in April 2008. 

When in opposition, Senator Stephen Conroy was very vocal both in and out of parliament about the interruptions for advertisements on SBS-TV.

Prior to the November 2007 federal election Senator Conroy told Save Our SBS: “The introduction of in program advertising to the SBS in effect makes the SBS a de facto fourth free-to-air commercial television station and serves to erode the fundamental tenets of public broadcasting- that is, that it should be free from commercial and political influence“.

In the week before the election, Stephen Conroy and Kevin Rudd announced Labor’s SBS policy saying: “Labor has opposed and continues to oppose the decision by SBS to introduce in-program advertising“.

But SBS continues to broadcast ads. Typically, SBS broadcasts a 2 minute commercial break twice, in a half hour program and three, 2 minute commercial break interruptions, in a one hour program. Breaks are also seen between programs. Generally SBS-TV has about 8 to 10 minutes of non-program-content per hour of which not more than 5 minutes is considered to be advertising. 

Disgruntled electors have contacted Save Our SBS to express their disappointment of expectations that Labor has not prohibited SBS from interrupting programs for advertisements some nine months after being elected to form government.

On being appointed as the Minister responsible for SBS, Senator Conroy reviewed a summary of the legal opinion that had been supplied to SBS (before his Ministerial appointment) as to the legality of SBS interrupting program for advertisements. Then at the May 2008 Senate Estimates, the Minister was questioned extensively and said “the SBS Board have always argued that they believed that what they were doing was consistent with their legal advice“.

Opposition Senator Birmingham questioned Minister Conroy further and asked if he was “considering any amendments to the governing legislation to tighten up this matter [to prohibit advertisements interrupting program on SBS]?” The Minister replied: “That is not something that I have considered at this stage but I appreciate your contribution and I will get some advice on that“.

But two months earlier, in March 2008, a private members Bill was read by outgoing Democrats leader, Lyn Allison, in the Senate, to prohibit SBS from interrupting programs for advertisements. The Bill, the Special Broadcasting Service Amendment (Prohibition of Disruptive Advertising) Bill 2008 – Bill number: 08050 remains dormant.

Save Our SBS has always been of the opinion that, regardless of any internal government review that might examine if SBS was in breach of the Act, the SBS Act ought to be amended to prohibit SBS-TV from interrupting program for advertisements. Even if SBS choose voluntarily to cease interrupting program for ads, Save Our SBS wants legislative protection to prevent any future Board from the practise of interrupting program for ad breaks. It is our aim that eventually SBS should be ad free.

Since being elected, the Minister has had no luck in prohibiting SBS from interrupting programs for advertisements and return to the multicultural broadcaster it once was. However, any legislative amendment would require support of the Senate. But the balance of power in the Senate is held in the hands of non-government Senators. A review of SBS and public broadcasting generally, by the Minister’s department is now likely, in preparation for the next SBS-triennial-funding due in the May 2009 Budget.

In discussing the prohibition of advertising at the May 2008 Senate Estimates, the Minister said: “The issue of triennial funding is coming up so the first opportunity for us to address these issues is within the context of the review of SBS’s triennial funding“.

Many remain annoyed by the ad interruptions but aside from the annoyance factor, one of the problems of allowing a public broadcaster to carry advertising is that the broadcaster’s relationship to their audiences changes. The client of a non-commercial public broadcaster, is the audience and the product is the program. However the entire relationship changes once advertisements are introduced. The client of a commercial broadcaster becomes the advertiser and the audience become a product to be sold to the advertiser. The role of the broadcaster is no longer to serve the audience, but rather to sell their product, that is the audience, to the broadcaster’s client, that is the advertiser. Hence the need to chase ratings and pay lip service to any Charter.

Save Our SBS understands that the Minister, Cabinet and government still hold the same philosophical belief that they voiced prior to the election and remain unhappy about SBS continuing to interrupt programs for advertisements and the general commercialisation that the public broadcaster is pursuing. 

Meanwhile SBS has said it would want an extra “$29.39m to $35.72m, or approximately between 30- 35% of base government funding, to maintain SBS operations [per year]. . . if SBS was to stop interrupting programs for advertisements and run advertisements between programs only, as used to be the case until late 2006.” SBS provided the information in answer to a question at Senate Estimates in February this year.

The Managing Director of SBS, Shaun Brown who, along with the Board, took SBS down the commercial path was reluctant to confirm that in 2007 SBS generated an extra $10m gross (or less than five percent of total revenue) from advertisements that interrupted programs. 20 percent of that income was diverted by way of commissions to a private advertising agency. Meanwhile SBS spent all the money and more, on their Australian version of a British motoring program, “Top Gear”. SBS has been criticised as wasting money on a program that is more suited to a commercial network. Many believe that “Top Gear” is outside the SBS Charter.

A long list of programs was supplied in answer to a question at the February 2008 Senate Estimates. SBS was asked: “In 2007, which programs were televised with breaks inserted by SBS in the circumstances where, those programs when supplied to SBS in their original format had not been produced, assembled or compiled with provision for any commercial breaks, such as British Broadcasting Corporation programs or cinema-release movies etc.”

The answer, later supplied by SBS, headed Programs delivered to SBS without breaks (2007), suggests that SBS must have forced some 5627 commercial breaks into 2046 program broadcasts that were never produced with natural breaks. The producers of 6 programs from the list below, had made suggestions as to the positioning of breaks.

To view the full list of programs broadcast on SBS-TV in 2007 that were delivered to SBS without breaks, click here or programs-delivered-to-sbs-without-breaks-2007.pdf

Save Our SBS is opposed to advertising on SBS. For more information about Save Our SBS please read the About Us page on the web site www.SaveOurSBS.org 


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