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Identity theft or giving up on Charter: how the ramping up of commercialism has weakened SBS a decade on

A couple of months ago, when the ABC’s 4 Corners program broadcast the excellent but heart wrenching documentary titled Children on the Frontline: Escape from Aleppo by Marcel Mettelsiefen, something was inadvertently portrayed about SBS — what it is not doing.

The entire Children on the Frontline program was in a language other than English (LOTE). All this occurred in primetime.

Children on the Frontline was told through the eyes of four children filmed over three years in Syria and Germany. Fleeing the Syrian conflict, the four siblings and mother eventually take refuge in Germany. This horrific and disturbing piece of television was a story worth telling.

But separate from review about the importance of this documentary — the setting, the story, and the fact that it was not in English — an obvious question arises: ‘why was it not on SBS?’

The simple answer is because the ABC obtained the rights to it, not SBS.

But the real story is because SBS no longer wants such programs. For some time, the Special Broadcasting Service has seen itself as a station of broad general appeal.

Even though Children on the Frontline would easily have met SBS’s Charter requirements, it necessitated uninterrupted viewer focus, would not neatly fit-in with the disruptive commercial format of SBS, and was in LOTE. A triple NO-NO for SBS when selecting a primetime program.

SBS certainly screens documentaries but none in primetime viewing that are 100 percent in LOTE.

In fact, on Friday nights SBS airs documentaries that are of a very high standard. Recently they covered European history and British royalty. But all are in English and through Anglocentric eyes with little connection to SBS’s Charter.

Long time loyal viewers of SBS will recall that years ago — before SBS became obsessed with commercialism — most primetime viewing was in LOTE. This satisfied a Charter obligation to broadcast programs “in their preferred languages”.

The Charter is a statutory requirement under the SBS Act.

So what’s going on? Why is the ABC occasionally broadcasting programs that on the face of it appear more suited to SBS, and why is SBS much of the time shying away from its Charter obligations?

Clearly the ABC is capitalising on SBS’s self-abandonment of their Charter in favour of wider appeal to advertisers. While advertising revenue may seem additional revenue to the dominant funding SBS receives from the public purse, it is not. It is instead of public funding, ultimately to the detriment of SBS.

The broadcaster is now so obsessed with a commercial operation that contrary to its stated ‘social cohesion’ Corporate Plan principles and Charter, a few months ago it promoted gambling to children through the broadcasting of Sportsbet advertisements — a move that Save Our SBS opposed.

The more successful SBS is at selling advertising, the more incentive there will be on future governments to reduce public funds and the further SBS will stray from its Charter. It’s like a vicious circle. SBS is now conflicted between serving advertiser, or Charter and audience.

Up until a decade ago, SBS overcame this conflict by positioning advertisements away from programs — between them only. But all that changed in late 2006 when SBS prioritised advertisers ahead of the Charter by interrupting every program for multiple commercial breaks, altering executive brain space to be more concerned with ratings and commercial ‘sell ability’ than the Charter.

Meanwhile the ABC is standing in the wings ready to fill the void left by SBS forgetting its raison d’être.

It’s as if SBS is willingly handing over its function to the ABC.

In fact SBS has not made any such decision to hand over its function. It is simply that those that program SBS — under the policies and direction of the Board — appear to have little understanding of what the broadcaster is supposed to be about. Ultimately the Board is responsible.

Although SBS Radio connects to the Charter by broadcasting 74 languages based on census data of languages spoken in the community, SBS television does not.

The popular Chinese dating program in Mandarin “If You Are The One”, is televised in primetime whereas virtually all other LOTE programs are shoved to late night or off-peak daytime.

But not every program would need to be in LOTE to fulfil SBS’s Charter obligations. Programs produced by SBS like “World News” and Jenny Brockie’s “Insight” are definitely Charter compliant as have been some SBS commissioned programs like the “Kebab Kings”, a documentary series about Australian‑Indian Muslim and Turkish people in Melbourne and Sydney, and the Australian-Asian comedy series “The Family Law”. Such Charter compliant programs are few and far between.

Due to lower purchase price, by necessity SBS is somewhat dependant on imported programs. By definition of a Charter requirement — that programs must be in their preferred languages — imports in LOTE are more likely to fulfil Charter obligations than those in English.

However, during primetime SBS screens a lot of UK and USA programs — in English. These are overrepresented to the extent that multiculturalism is at best incidental, and at worst non-existent. If viewers want such programs, there is an abundance elsewhere without SBS duplicating the dominant culture of other channels.

The occasional European or Asian language movie or series broadcast at an obscure hour seems to be the best our multicultural broadcaster can dish up to enrich Australian’s with other cultures through their eyes. Where are the great TV programs from new and emerging communities — like African nations? And where are the primetime Middle Eastern serials or those of other languages and cultures?

Back in April Save Our SBS praised SBS for their recognition that they needed to, and would do better on Charter delivery on their television service. But since the broadcaster promised they would implement programming practices to ‘reflect the special SBS Charter’ little has changed. That appears to have all been spin.

The SBS Board must now be called to account for its abandonment of the Charter. The Board have neglected some of the most isolated people in our country — new and emerging communities especially.

Clearly SBS were shocked into a re-think by moves in February of a possible ABC-SBS merger.

Since SBS’s realisation that they needed to ‘up their game’, with few exceptions the broadcaster still crashes program into advertisements — as if they form part of the program — in what could only be described as the worst, most abrupt form of television presentation of all the free-to-air stations. This non-innovative presentation is juxtaposed by SBS TV now emphasising higher quality productions — like the Friday night documentaries or evening movie — almost nothing to do with the Charter — but nevertheless programs with high production standards. Sadly, the re-think within SBS has not seen it move to fill the bulk of primetime with LOTE programs. Despite all the television programs in the world, SBS cannot find even a few hours around the peak 8:30pm time slot to schedule LOTE programs — the slot that the ABC used to broadcast Children on the Frontline.

So where does this leave SBS?

Although the main political Parties did not favour an ABC-SBS merger, this could change with future budget repairs. We have seen the two major Parties give and take a little from their policy positions in the passing of the Omnibus bills. Nothing is new about political parties breaking a promise after an election, but when it’s an issue that no-one thinks important — such as an ABC-SBS merger — there is no particular incentive not to break a pre-election promise.

A very recent TV Tonight survey found that a merger of the public broadcasters was rated as ‘NOT IMPORTANT’ by those surveyed. With an apparent shift in public attitudes and a budget hole, SBS is now more vulnerable to a potential further attempt to merge it with the ABC. In fact it would be a takeover by the ABC.

Months ago, SBS was given a second chance — to get back to Charter — after the proposed ABC-SBS merger failed. Unless there are radical programming and advertising policy changes made that truly reflect that required by the Charter, the broadcaster probably won’t be given a third chance. The outcome would be disastrous for multiculturalism and everything that SBS once stood for, and still could.

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