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Disconnect Foxtel, don’t sack SBS staff

Joint statement by Save Our SBS President Steve Aujard, and public broadcasting advocate Quentin Dempster.

The budgetary ‘haircut’ now under consideration by the SBS Board and management should come from Foxtel carriage charges and not SBS staff or commissioned Australian content.

Federal Parliament’s decisive rejection of the SBS advertising and product placement Bill last Wednesday was motivated by a widespread concern that SBS would be turned into Australia’s fourth fully commercial TV network while favouring advertisers ahead of Charter obligations and at a time when free-to-air networks seek all the local advertising revenue they can get.

Now SBS has responded that it faces a $28m budgetary shortfall (over five years) without the ‘flexibility’ to double prime time advertising through the failed SBS Bill.

SBS said that there were no more ‘back office’ efficiencies and is considering contingency plans which it says will impact on programs and services.

We dispute this claim. The Lewis efficiency review of the ABC and SBS clearly identified charges to Foxtel to carry all SBS content[1].

The communications committee public inquiry Hansard suggests that SBS pays Foxtel up to $5m each year[2] i.e., $25m over five years or almost the full amount that SBS claimed it would have raised had the Bill to increase advertising passed. Several million dollars a year to Foxtel is a waste of taxpayers money simply to retransmit SBS content that is otherwise freely available via an ordinary antenna.

SBS should now disconnect Foxtel not sack staff nor locally made programs. If SBS proceeds to downsize staff or commissioned content as a first response to the budgetary haircut, SBS supporters and the Australian taxpayers who fund it, would be entitled to protest long and loud.

Foxtel gets both revenue and a subscriber advantage through the SBS deal. Mr Lewis clearly identified these charges as an indulgence for SBS and of commercial advantage to Foxtel.

Audiences could easily access SBS channels and programs through their free-to-air digital antennas.

Only a month ago SBS found a $500k per year saving when it ceased its subscription to Freeview – the free-to-air networks cross industry promotional platform.  Withdrawing from Freeview is no loss to the SBS viewer. With a saving of $500k per year ($2.5m over five years) plus the potential Foxtel savings of about $25m over the same period, there is no reason to sack staff or cut programs. 

SBS should abandon its commercial ambitions and get back to the valuable work of multi-lingual and multi-cultural broadcasting services – the Charter purpose for which it was established by the Malcolm Fraser Coalition government 36 years ago.

The budget haircut now under consideration at SBS is a direct consequence of the dishonouring of Tony Abbott’s election commitment that there would be ‘no cuts to SBS’.

[1] Department of Communications, ABC and SBS Efficiency Study, April 2014, pg 62 ‘$116.5m combined ABC-SBS retransmission on Foxtel VAST 2009-10 to 2019-20’
[2] Hansard Proof, Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, 18 May 2015, pg 39

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