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Senate told of SBS hush plan to double ads before government cuts were announced

Last week, Save Our SBS President Steve Aujard told a Senate inquiry into a Bill that would double primetime advertising on SBS, that the broadcaster had wanted to increase advertising before the government announced cuts to SBS. Save Our SBS gave evidence opposing the Bill, which if passed, would see increased commercial breaks and 14 minutes per hour of non program matter from 6pm to midnight and in sport.

Mr Aujard said that in mid 2012 SBS’s Managing Director, Michael Ebeid, had told Save Our SBS that-

[SBS] could make twice the money from having twice the number of ads.

The Senators heard evidence that Mr Ebeid’s comment was made soon after SBS had received a 27 percent increase from the former government and on the back of prior discussions about removing in-program ads. Mr Aujard said this is when Mr Ebeid told Save Our SBS- 

that SBS was no longer interested in that [removing in-program ads]. 

Mr Aujard told the Senate inquiry of a separate meeting in January last year in which SBS management made it clear [again] they were very attracted to advertising.

Mr Aujard emphasised:

there is clear evidence SBS management had every intention of fully commercialising SBS television before confronted with cuts.

Last year the government announced five percent would be cut from SBS’s budget over five years.

Also speaking at last week’s public inquiry was public broadcasting advocate Quentin Dempster, who spoke of a deliberate commercial strategy to fully commercialise SBS.

Mr Dempster said:

We think the minister has put the Bill up at the request of SBS. That is why we went to pains to point out the time line, where we sort of knew previously. We support the institution and its ideals, but we are in confrontation or in dispute with the management of SBS about their objectives.

Margaret Pomeranz & Quentin Dempster were the faces of a Save Our SBS petition that was signed by 62,000 people opposing the Bill to increase advertising on SBS. 

The full audio of the evidence given by Save Our SBS to the inquiry is here

A month before the Senate hearing, Save Our SBS tendered a comprehensive written submission of evidence that SBS had already deviated from its Charter obligations and that it would be even less compliant if the advertising Bill became law.

Save Our SBS was one of four organisations invited to give evidence to the Senate committee.

At the start of the Save Our SBS proceedings, the Chair, Senator Anne Ruston (Liberal Party) asked if Save Our SBS wished to make an opening statement.

Steve Aujard

Thank you for inviting us to this hearing.

Save Our SBS is the national peak body for supporters and friends of SBS. Our dual purpose includes advocating for audiences of SBS. While we put the case for greater public funding for SBS, we also scrutinise it to see that it operates in a fair and transparent manner and is faithful to its Charter.

Despite a promise made the night before the 2013 election by Mr Abbott on SBS television directly to SBS audiences that there will be no cuts to SBS, the government has cut 5% from SBS’s budget over five years.

In a strategy said to be devised to claw back some of this quantum, SBS is supporting this Bill which, in practice, will effectively double prime time advertising on SBS television.

We are highly sceptical about this strategy because in mid 2012, just after having received enhanced funding from the former government, SBS management expressed to us an interest in doubling ads from five to 10 minutes per hour.

This attraction to the commercialisation of SBS from within SBS management, contrary to what viewers were wanting, was confirmed publicly at the Senate communications committee inquiry on the 25th of November 2014, when Senator Canavan asked if SBS wanted to increase advertising before the ABC-SBS Efficiency Study, the Lewis review. Answering for the Department of Communications, Ms Nerida O’Loughlin, Deputy Secretary, and Dr Simon Pelling, First Assistant Secretary, Consumer and Content division, said, ‘over time, yes’. Dr Pelling absolutely confirmed that SBS had raised increasing ads before the Lewis review, saying:

It is not something that SBS has been secretive about.

What we’re submitting to you that there is clear evidence that SBS management had every intention of fully commercialising SBS television before confronted with cuts or the Lewis efficiency review.

We have provided evidence on pages 7 and 8 of our submission from five sources that with an executive strategy to pursue commercial revenues SBS will be significantly diverted from its primary function, its Charter prescribed by Section 6 of the SBS Act. That evidence is reputable, both local and international research that cannot be disputed.

Even the Lewis review said-

there will be greater pressure on SBS management to consider the trade-off of delivering on commercial expectations, against delivering those functions described in the SBS Charter.

If this Bill passes, eventually you will see 14 minutes of disruptive commercial breaks every hour at night from 6pm to midnight and in sport. 14 minutes. That’s virtually the same as commercial TV. 14 minutes of commercial breaks — in every hour in primetime.

Even if there are some markets in which SBS’s primetime fill rate is less than 100%, the duration of the commercial breaks are set nationally by SBS per Network. Regardless of fill rate, each market will have the identical quantity of non program matter per Network. Regardless of the mix of ads and promos, the Bill will cause 14 minutes of commercial breaks per hour. It may take time to get there but audiences don’t distinguish between ads or promos. It is all just an interruption to them. We have confirmed these strong views through audience surveys that audiences do not want this.

Quentin Dempster

Evolving from a lifetime of work in the Australian media, in print: Queensland Press Ltd 14 years and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for 30 years; I have become an advocate for Australia’s unique public broadcasting system, the ABC and SBS. I am particularly distressed at the current plight of SBS. With the help of the unimpeachable Margaret  Pomeranz I joined Save Our SBS in a public campaign to stop the full commercialisation of SBS. What is proposed in this Bill will make SBS television Australia’s fourth fully commercial channel by stealth. And this at a time when commercial TV networks, which invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in local content, need to recover as much advertising revenue as they can as global video streaming services disaggregate the consumer market.

Some 62,000 people signed a petition opposing this Bill. A copy is on page 2 of our submission. They do not want more ads and neither do we at any cost. But SBS will tell you otherwise.

They did an online survey said to be of 1005 people identified as SBS viewers. Apparently 845 people said they wanted “slightly more advertising” to preserve Australian content. By comparison, we did two formal studies of 3,777 SBS viewers nationally. Our studies were far more comprehensive than the few that SBS surveyed.

In evidence before the Senate Select Committee Into The Abbott Government Budget Cuts on the 12th of December last year, the SBS Managing Director, Mr Michael Ebeid, dismissed one of our larger studies — our 102 page analysis of 2044 viewers. Mr Ebeid said that ‘it was a pretty useless document because it was only 2000 people and SBS had a base of 5,000 it regularly surveyed’.

But SBS has not produced a study of the claimed 5,000 people and even in their sample of a thousand, they didn’t attempt to find out what the relationship was between advertising and Charter compliance. We did. Their survey was a quarter the number of viewers we studied and theirs lacks credibility. Unlike our studies, SBS did not explain their methodology or provide the raw data. We did. Their outcome of one study is at odds with both our studies of more than three times the number of viewers.

The Save Our SBS study of 2044 viewers revealed that 93.4% preferred to restrict advertising even if that meant little or no expansion of SBS and less local content. To put this in plain English; people do not want more ads or more commercial breaks on SBS even if local content will decrease. So any threats of the loss of local content if the Bill fails, are meaningless for SBS audiences.

Unlike commercial broadcasters, there is no requirement on SBS to present any Australian content.

In both of our studies, the participants were required to read SBS’s Charter in order to answer Charter related questions; a total of 26 questions in two different studies, two different cohorts and in two separate time periods.

Our studies were proper analytical non-biased research targeted to viewers of SBS who were prepared to read the Charter and answer questions about ‘advertising, Charter adherence, programming in languages other than English, Codes of Practice and other matters’. Against this, you have the SBS survey of only a thousand viewers which seems to be disingenuous in the way it framed the question of a “slight” increase in advertising. Since when did it become accurate to describe a 100% increase in primetime advertising — a change from 5 to 10 minutes per hour — as a “slight” increase? SBS did. It’s on page 12 of their submission.

A word now about the commentary from the Department of Communications on our studies in their Regulation Impact Statement in which they say Save Our SBS conducted studies about the “removal of advertising”. We need to set the record straight here. Our studies were about the attitudes of viewers on a range of topics including — as I said before — advertising, Codes of Practice, Charter, programming in languages other than English, SBS radio, television and digital. In our first study of 1733 viewers we made no recommendations and in our second study of 2044 viewers we made five recommendations. We conducted quantitative and qualitative research. Although one of the recommendations was about the displacement of advertising to between programs only, we never recommended the total removal of advertising. The Department has misrepresented us and this study.

Steve Aujard

I now want to briefly draw the Committee to a technical matter.

In its discussion about product placement, the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill states the “guidelines would be included in the SBS Codes of Practice”. The Department’s RIS also said the same: the product placement “guidelines would be included in the SBS Codes of Practice”. However, the Bill has been so poorly drafted that it places no such requirement on SBS to include any aspect of product placement in the SBS Codes. The Bill merely requires that the SBS Board develop and publish their guidelines about product placement. So what’s the issue? Does it really matter if the rules about product placement appear in the SBS guidelines and not in the SBS Codes of Practice? The answer is ‘yes’.

If the rules on product placement are not in the SBS Codes of Practice, any ‘guidelines’ become a meaningless document in a dispute lodged to the industry regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, for example, where a viewer wished to pursue a breach by SBS of the product placement guidelines. The reason for this is because ACMA does not have the power to review guidelines created under the SBS Act. I’ll say that again. ACMA does not have the power to review guidelines created under the SBS Act.

Under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, section 150(1)(a) or (b), ACMA may only investigate a complaint made under a Code — not a set of guidelines outside a Code.

In a modern democracy, there is no justice in a law that is framed so that consumers are denied an avenue to have a wrong made right. And that is exactly what this Bill will do if it becomes law.

Not only would this Bill deny consumers of SBS any mechanism of even lodging a complaint and zero chance of success, it really undermines what SBS is supposed to be about.

Quentin Dempster

We ask this committee to seriously question the stated support for this Bill by your previous witnesses from FECCA, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia. We are sceptical because FECCA seems to have changed its tune on an issue vital to SBS’s capacity to meet its Charter purpose. For many years individuals at senior levels within FECCA consistently expressed concerns about the commercialisation of SBS to senior people within Save Our SBS. We talk to each other. As recently as March 23rd a senior person from FECCA told my colleague here, Steve Aujard and I quote “FECCA does not want more advertising and we will not support the Bill”. Mr Aujard was reassured.

But on the 23rd of April this year, an investigative piece in Crikey by reporter Myriam Robin, titled “SBS brings out the big guns as questions raised about multicultural group’s support“, reported that a financial relationship between SBS and FECCA was in the order of $51,000. We think there is a conflict of interest here. FECCA denies it, of course. But we are entitled to be sceptical because in stating in its submission that their support “is necessary to ensure that the role of SBS in supporting multicultural communities is not diminished” we understand that FECCA did not survey the wider ethnic communities. Save Our SBS is on the mailing list of some of the various State ethnic Councils that make up FECCA. None of them asked their members: ‘do you support or not support this Bill and why’. As far as we can tell, unlike Save Our SBS, FECCA did not survey anyone about this.

The danger to SBS’s Charter purpose is now clear.

I would like to read to you an extract of an email dated 26 March 2015 from the SBS Program Assessment Manager to RONIN FILMS regarding the documentary “These Heathen Dreams” made by the Greek Australian documentary film maker of international standing Ms Anne Tsoulis — in which SBS state:

As a broad general channel we can only acquire documentaries with broad, general appeal.

Crikey published this letter last Friday in the story ‘A broad, general channel’: is SBS ignoring its charter? SBS rejected this documentary about the life of an Australian poet. But it was commissioned and was broadcast in prime time in France at 8:30 on a Sunday night and elsewhere. Now SBS may say this complaint from a rejected proponent is a case of sour grapes but SBS’s stated reason for rejecting the merits of commissioning this documentary are probative of a distortion of its Charter purpose. SBS is not supposed to be a “broad general channel”. That is the role of the ABC and commercial broadcasters. SBS is supposed to be a SPECIAL broadcaster, not one of “broad, general appeal”. It seems to us that FECCA is supportive of SBS’s “broad, general appeal” attitude which is contrary to the Charter. Why would we say that? Because a letter was published last week from the film maker Ms Tsoulis dated 30th March 2015 to SBS’s Chairman and copied to the Chair of FECCA in which the specific matters to which I referred — “broad, general appeal” and so on — were raised. We are told FECCA ignored that totally. No reply. Nothing. This did not raise alarm bells within FECCA. It seems to us that FECCA
is out of touch with the community it claims to represent and SBS has its priorities elsewhere. In order to maximise advertising, SBS already focuses on programs of “broad general appeal” and that will be even more so if this Bill passes which is not only contrary to the Charter, but would not be welcomed by a range of ethnic communities.

When SBS introduced in-program advertising in late 2006 audiences protested, a petition was presented and since then tens of thousands of viewers have used many forums, in growing numbers, calling for a means to remove or at least restrict advertising to between programs only — as SBS once operated. But the fact that a Bill has been introduced that will now ramp up the commercialisation of SBS and double the number of commercial breaks that interrupt programs, indicates a contempt for the taxpayers who fund SBS.

If this Bill is passed it will damage SBS and multiculturalism in Australia not just a bit, but irretrievably.

You can read the full transcript here or listen to the proceedings.

The full audio of the evidence given by Save Our SBS to the inquiry is here

There were four organisations giving evidence. In order they were:-

FECCA full audio here

Save Our SBS full audio here

Free TV full audio here

SBS full audio here

Written submissions of the four organisations were tendered a month before the public hearing. A number of individuals also made submissions. All are published here.

The Senate Communications Committee public inquiry held in Melbourne on 18 May 2015 was into the Communications Legislation Amendment (SBS Advertising Flexibility and Other Measures) Bill 2015.

Senators attending 

Chair: Senator Anne Ruston, Liberal Party of Australia, SA

Deputy Chair: Senator Anne Urquhart, Australian Labor Party, TAS

Member: Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO, Liberal Party of Australia, NSW

Substitute Member: Senator Scott Ludlam, Australian Greens, WA 

Participating Member: Senator Nick Xenophon, Independent, SA




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