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New Codes defy SBS community

When SBS released their new Codes of Practice at the end of February, they ignored 90 percent of viewers by refusing to include SBS’s definition of a natural break, the insertion of commercial breaks into TV programs.

The Codes are supposed to outline the practices and principles the broadcaster follows in consideration of community concerns and the SBS Charter. Should the Codes be breached, a viewer may take a complaint to the regulator, the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA). But ACMA has no power to review any guidelines that are outside a Code.

As the new Codes do not include a definition of a natural break, viewers have no redress when SBS forces a commercial break into a program, an unnatural break. In answer to a Senate question on notice, SBS admitted to forcing some 6000 breaks per year into programs where a break was not intended, such as BBC programs, movies and the like.

“Natural program breaks” is a vague provision in the SBS Act which SBS re-interpreted in 2006 to force commercial breaks into programs. Previously ads were before or after a program only. The 2005 Codes (five Codes back), were the last set of Codes to include a definition of a natural break. It limited advertising to between programs, except in the natural break of a sports event, for example, half time at a soccer match. But SBS removed that definition in 2006 when they introduced in‑program advertising as part of a deliberate move to lock out viewers from succeeding in a complaint to ACMA that would have stopped SBS forcing commercial breaks into programs.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for SBS said the new Codes take account of “audience expectations”. Save Our SBS believes this is not true because the new Codes ignored the findings of a 2013 survey which showed that almost 90 percent of 2044 viewers nationally, wanted SBS to include a definition of a natural break in the Codes.

Source: SOSBS, (2013), A study of 2044 viewers of SBS television on advertising, Charter, relevance and other matters

The survey was independent of SBS and the largest investigation ever conducted into this matter. It formed the basis of a community submission to the SBS Board tilted, A study of 2044 viewers of SBS television on advertising, Charter, relevance and other matters.

A recommendation made in the 102-page evidence based submission of July last year, was that “the SBS Codes of Practice be amended to incorporate the definition of “natural program breaks” into the Codes”.

However, the Board neglected to table the submission, and therefore never referred it to the unit who were rewriting the Codes.

The Codes have been under review since early 2013.

Save Our SBS was led to believe the new Codes would not be released until much later this year and there was ample time to properly discuss the recommendations submitted, namely the inclusion of a definition for natural program breaks – even if it were one with which many may disagree.

Another recommendation of the community submission to SBS was that “the SBS Board amend the SBS definition [currently a set of guidelines only] of what constitutes a natural break so that it is more in line with community standards” – and that be included in the new Codes too.

When questioned about commercial breaks on SBS-TV, more than 90 percent of 2044 viewers said, “most in-program advertising breaks look forced or artificially contrived and it would be misleading to describe these as natural program breaks”.

Source: SOSBS, (2013), A study of 2044 viewers of SBS television on advertising, Charter, relevance and other matters

However, the new Codes of Practice failed to consider this too.

Aspiring to the 2006 Codes, the spokesperson for SBS said, “The SBS Codes of Practice 2014 maintain and confirm the principles and policies set out in the Codes of Practice 2006". However in a letter dated 2006 to SBS, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA), expressed concern that the 2006 Codes would mean SBS would no longer be accountable to the communities it serves, and FECCA’s then President Voula Messimeri, told an ABC radio program – The World Today – "the intention of having the special broadcaster is so that they can be a multicultural provider, a special broadcaster in terms of being different from commercial enterprise, and I think that this will make it, increasingly, look very much like mainstream, commercial enterprise".

The spokesperson for SBS said the 2014 Codes "demonstrate SBS’s ongoing commitment to the SBS Charter”. However, the 2013 ‘study of 2044 viewers’ found a direct link between in-program advertising and SBS failing to abide by their Charter.

Three quarters of SBS viewers – who were given the Charter to read before commenting – said, “since SBS-TV introduced in-program advertising, [it was] less faithful to the Charter now than it used to be”.

 Source: SOSBS, (2013), A study of 2044 viewers of SBS television on advertising, Charter, relevance and other matters

It is difficult to reconcile how SBS remains committed to the Charter having failed to incorporate community concerns into their 2014 Codes of Practice.

Despite repeated requests over a very long period, no discussions were ever held between Save Our SBS and the unit within SBS responsible for rewriting the Codes. Save Our SBS was told that would occur over the coming months. It still may although on the face of it, SBS appears to have been disingenuous in this regard.

In developing the 2014 Codes, SBS did not engage in any community consultations nor take note of the largest study ever conducted into these matters. As a result there remains no independent proper process to resolve a complaint about SBS disrupting a program for commercial breaks. SBS will continue to operate under an in-house set of guidelines – not included in the Codes – of a definition of a natural break that is grossly out of step with community concerns and against the intent of the legislators. Programs will remain disrupted argumentum ad nauseam.

The only significant change made to the new Codes but not one recommended, was to allow MA programs to be broadcast from 8:30pm onwards. Previously they were not allowed before 9pm.

The SBS spokesperson said the Codes, “acknowledge the incorporation of NITV”. Last year the National Indigenous TV merged with SBS.

This is the seventh revised version of the Codes since the broadcaster introduced in-program advertising in late 2006 and the third Codes amendment, since Joseph Skrzynski was appointed as Chairman in 2009. Not only is it the only one he ever bothered to sign, but he did so in his final days before concluding his five year term.

The SBS Act requires the SBS Board develop the Codes of Practice. It also requires the Board be aware of and respond to community views. Clearly, that did not happen.

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