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Why the proposed takeover of SBS failed

Although SBS is currently without a permanent chairman, this week high profile supporter of multicultural broadcasting and former chair of SBS Joseph Skrzynski AO spoke out against the idea of an ABC-SBS merger. Mr Skrzynski wrote in Fairfax Media that for every $1 SBS spends to reach each TV audience member, the ABC spends $3, and SBS delivers double the amount of TV per TV employee compared to the ABC. The former SBS chairman detailed why a merger made no economic sense and echoed concerns of the wider community opposed to a merger of the two broadcasters.

A successful merger of the ABC and SBS was always going to fail without mutual support of the ABC and SBS boards as well as key stakeholders such as Save Our SBS, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA), unions, screen producers and a number of special interest groups. We look at six key organisations that outgoing ABC Managing Director Mark Scott failed to approach for their views on an ABC-SBS merger.

Save Our SBS believes it is imperative for Australian multicultural broadcasting to keep the ABC and SBS separate and independent of each other.

The peak body for supporters & friends of SBS Save Our SBS is opposed to an ABC-SBS merger.

Save Our SBS President Steve Aujard said, "In reality it would not be a merger, it would be a takeover of SBS/NITV by the ABC.

"If SBS became part of the ABC, aside from the loss of our identifiable multicultural broadcaster and loss of control over content, operational costs would sky-rocket.

"The $40m of projected savings from a merger as stated by Mark Scott are a myth.

"The $40m was based on an outdated report of the Boston Consulting Group. SBS have always found ways to work with less than the ABC does. 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", Mr Aujard said.

Chairman Joe Caputo of FECCA told Save Our SBS that FECCA is strongly against an ABC/SBS merger.

Mr Caputo said, "It was a bad idea for Mark Scott to launch a hand grenade suggesting the ABC and SBS should merge at his final speech as Managing Director of the ABC at the Press Club luncheon.

"The ABC have never consulted FECCA about an ABC-SBS merger.

"The ABC should have shown some faith and reflected multicultural Australia more than they have up to now.

"ABC’s Lateline program for example, covers excellent stories but they almost never have stories from the non-English speaking world’s perspective. You almost never hear an exotic voice. There are plenty of stories from London and Washington but it’s as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. We are a multicultural society and the ABC generally ignore this fact.

"SBS has a vital role for multicultural Australia and this role would disappear if it was merged with the ABC", Mr Caputo said.

We asked Mr Caputo what he thought of the recent suggestion that niche content such as SBS content could be moved online to free up transmission space for the government to sell. "My parents have a computer in the house but they are too scared to turn it on, they are afraid of breaking it. If SBS TV content could only be accessed via the Internet it would add yet another hurdle for new and emerging communities and for elderly migrants not to mention regional migrants with poor Internet access. We are a multicultural country and this must be acknowledged. Australians need to see multicultural Australia reflected on free to air TV not moved to the Internet", Mr Caputo said.

One of the major unions for technical and other workers at SBS, the CPSU, has serious concerns about a merger.

The CPSU’s ABC Section Secretary Sinddy Ealy said, "The ABC and SBS, including NITV, are absolutely crucial parts of Australia’s cultural and political landscape. They each fill unique and distinctive roles, as is reflected in their service charters, and those need to be recognised and protected at all costs.

"Experience has also taught our members that painful cost cutting rarely benefits the ABC, SBS or their audiences.

"We have serious concerns about the potential repercussions of a partial or complete merger of SBS with the ABC", Ms Ealy said.

The other union covering SBS employees the MEAA, is also cautious about a merger.

In a statement, the MEAA said that any moves to merge Australia’s national broadcasters with the purpose of finding savings or “efficiencies” must be treated with extreme caution.

The MEAA represents news and editorial employees at the ABC and SBS.

The CEO of the MEAA Paul Murphy said that discussion of an ABC-SBS merger was a distraction from serious issues of underfunding faced by both public broadcasters. He said that the MEAA was very skeptical that an effective argument could be mounted to bring the two institutions together.

Mr Murphy said, "Merger efforts tend to have more to do with ‘saving the silverware’ than improving operations and content offerings".

Screen Producers Australia is also against a merger. "Any conversation about the merger of our public broadcasters must factor in both the distinct identities and individual charters of ABC and SBS as well as the diversity that is gained by the public and commercial sector investing in the production of Australian content", said SPA CEO Matthew Deaner.

"Furthermore, Screen Producers Australia would be very concerned if one of the buyers of content was removed from what is already a small market, this would diminish commissioning opportunities by concentrating programming decisions into fewer and fewer hands. It would further reduce competitive tension for smaller producers when negotiating commercial terms with digital and distribution rights, which are already a vexed issue", Mr Deaner said.

At time of publication, the Friends of the ABC had not published their views on a merger. The ABC lobby group spokesperson Margaret Reynolds told Save Our SBS, "The ABC-SBS merger talk is a distraction, nothing will come of it.

"If there was a serious debate with real details about a merger the Friends may take a position.

"The Friends of the ABC are concentrating on seeking adequate funding so the ABC can adhere to its charter. However, in any merger the smaller organisation is usually swallowed up despite the best of intentions", Ms Reynolds said.

A full merger of the two broadcasters would require an amendment of the ABC and SBS Acts by the Parliament.

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