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Don’t merge the ABC and SBS

A 40-page report released today raises the possibility of niche programs being relegated to internet, apps and catch-up platforms as part of an ABC-SBS merger. Niche programs are central to SBS.

Commenting on the report, Save Our SBS President Steve Aujard said, “This is deeply disturbing. The SBS and NITV free-to-air broadcast channels could cease to exist as we know it.”

The Australia Institute’s report, titled, “I want my ABC (and SBS and NITV)” claims to have examined the risks and potential benefits of a merger.

The report was written by former ABC digital manager, Fergus Pitt.

Mr Aujard said, “It all but argues in favour of a merger without overtly concluding such and it repeatedly denigrates the difficult job SBS does with a far smaller budget than the ABC has at its disposal.

“The report firmly argues that advertising should be abolished from SBS and we agree with that. But that could be achieved without the expense and risks involved in merging SBS into the ABC.

“The report talks about the reallocation of the broadcasting frequency spectrum. That’s code for the auctioning off – or licensing out to private industry for data purposes – the public air waves that SBS uses to broadcast its programs.

“We understand that discussions have occurred within government along these lines. If Malcolm Turnbull supports social cohesion, a multicultural Australia and the important role of SBS, then he needs to rule out now any intent or possibility from his government of an ABC-SBS merger.

“In reality it would not be a merger, it would be a takeover of SBS/NITV by the ABC. We are opposed to that. If SBS became part of the ABC, aside from the loss of our identifiable multicultural broadcaster, operational costs to the ABC would sky-rocket. SBS have always found ways to work with less than the ABC does. Sometimes SBS spends only a fraction of the cost for a similar service and often with a much better outcome than the ABC. Then there are the thousand or so staff who work at SBS. They are paid a lot less than their ABC equivalents. A single public broadcaster would uniform wages to the higher level. All this adds up.

“The report confuses the medium – the broadcast spectrum or platform – with the message – the broadcaster’s content – and in parts is critical of SBS meeting its charter obligations but it is light on examining ABC content and avoids discussion on areas where the ABC may be failing its charter.

“What with ABC boss Mark Scott saying it was worth reviewing the need for a second public broadcaster and now talk of a merger, Save Our SBS hopes that the ABC – a very worthwhile institution – will focus on its own service in its bid for greater funding, without attempting to acquire SBS as a means to bolster that funded to the ABC.

“The Australia Institute report suggests that SBS online news is failing and should be all but closed – become a translator service of ABC news. This approach is surprising when the Institute acknowledges that the ABC has a skewed cultural domination with less than eight percent of ABC content makers from a non-English speaking background.

“The report argues for fewer online news channels as a benefit of a merger. This anti‑diversity approach is the opposite of what SBS stands for. In essence, the Australia Institute report is proposing a scaled down SBS news presence predominately through the eyes of a translated ABC Anglo-centric perspective, not as told from the view of a non-Anglo report for a particular community. The proposal is problematic due to concepts contained in a news story that, without interpretation, may be puzzling for people from different cultural backgrounds.

“SBS radio successfully broadcasts nationally in 74 languages each week and is an outstanding success in providing Australian news and content to new and emerging communities as well as to established people from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is right on charter.

“In an ABC-SBS/NITV merger, the report suggests a one-board approach (hardly a massive saving). However, it does not discuss the ‘cultural’ value of a separate SBS board and management.

“Save Our SBS does not argue against an observation made in the report that the ABC and SBS have already achieved significant operating efficiencies exceeding those identified in the Communications Department’s ABC and SBS Efficiency Study, the Lewis Review. This fact appears to be an argument against a merger.”

The report says the potential benefits of a merger would be to:

  • Accelerate transition to digital-first strategies, protecting future growth;
  • Remove advertising from SBS;
  • Improve the cultural diversity of the ABC;
  • Strengthen the delivery of SBS’s multicultural charter obligations; and
  • Provide financial and political security for both organisations.

In concluding Mr Aujard said, “The only attractive part of the Australia Institute’s report is it is quite strong on the removal of advertising from SBS and emphasises the importance of the SBS charter. But a takeover by the ABC of SBS/NITV is the wrong way to approach this. SBS has a special role in social cohesion that is foreign to the ABC. The reason SBS was created, was because the ABC failed to embrace multicultural and multilingual broadcasting.”

The Australia Institute’s report, “I want my ABC (and SBS and NITV)” is here

 

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