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Local content to increase

SBS are planning a one-third increase in their local on-screen content this year.

The decision to increase the content came about following a Senate Estimates hearing last year where Greens communication spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam, asked SBS’s Managing Director Michael Ebeid, why the broadcaster had only invested 37 per cent of television advertising dollars on local programs, when, upon the introduction of in-program advertising, an SBS media release had promised that 100 percent of advertising revenue would be used to make Australian programs.

“SBS has directed all advertising revenue to program making and the commissioning of programs from independent Australian filmmakers” the release said. Although that was SBS’s publicly stated rationale for disrupting prime-time TV programs for commercial breaks, Mr Ebeid appeared unaware of the policy and questioned the 37 percent figure.

The figure was calculated from the latest available data made public by the (former government’s) Minister who, in an answer to a question on notice, revealed that although television advertising revenue generated $46m, only $17.4m was used to commission local content in 2011-12. This excluded news, current affairs and sport. Since then, first run Australian TV programs have decreased on SBS. But last year, confusion arose within SBS as to the real figure. Depending on what was included in the count – drama, or news and sport – 14 to more than 37 percent of television advertising revenue was invested in local content.

There is no agreed definition of local content within SBS.

With a muddled or nil definition it is easy to fudge the figures. For example, should an overseas sports broadcast with SBS commentary be counted or would it be more honest to use a narrower definition: first run, 100 percent locally made drama, comedy and documentary type programs?

SBS did not state if repeats of Australian content were to be included or excluded from the one-third increase in local content in 2014.

It is also not known what percentage of total television air time will be made up of local content, nor the breakdown of that on each SBS network; how much would be from sport, news, documentaries, short on-screen hostings, dramas, comedies, one-offs, serials, mini-series, promotions, music and arts programs and so on.

Anything considered ‘high-brow’ such as opera or ballet and avant-garde programs will not be part of the mix, at least not in the early to mid prime time slots nor in a ratings period. SBS will not risk screening these then, as such programs do not easily attract advertisers and even if some were found, SBS would, in typical style, disrupt them with commercial breaks "natural program breaks" – at the end of a scene or lapse in time – at the most insensitive moments and where the program maker never intended and according to a large 2013 study, 94.5 percent of viewers do not want (91.7 percent said SBS commercial breaks looked "forced or artificially contrived and it would be misleading to describe these as natural program breaks"). 

Unlike the ABC and commercial networks, there is no requirement on SBS to broadcast a quota of Australian programs. The SBS Charter does not specify that. But it does state the "principal function" of SBS is to provide "multilingual" programs to communities "in their preferred languages".

In prime time, SBS has not televised wall-to-wall multilingual content for years. This year in prime time, viewers should not expect to see any increases in programs made entirely or even mostly in a language other than English (LOTE). Such attracts small niche audiences that have little appeal to advertisers and the quantity of LOTE programs – local or imported –  will remain low.

No decision has been made on what portion of advertising revenue will now be set aside for commissioning future local programs or if news, current affairs and sport will be funded separately.

As far as this year is concerned, SBS will not commit to honouring the original promise and their stated reason for placing advertising within programs: ‘that all advertising revenue would be used to commission first run Australian programs’.


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