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Intent, the law & ad breaks on SBS

The purpose of the SBS, the reason it exists, is to be found in the Charter at section 6 of the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991.

The Charter is very clear: “The principle function of the SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services . . .”

Section 45 of the Act states that SBS may broadcast advertisements “before programs commence, after programs end or during natural program breaks” but no definition is given of a “natural program break” or when that might occur. The history of advertising on SBS dates back to 1991. There is nothing in the SBS Act that exempts advertisements from needing to comply with the SBS Charter. Mostly they don’t.

In late 2006, SBS reinterpreted their previous definition of a “natural program break”, and SBS-TV began to look and feel like that of a commercial broadcaster what with every program being interrupted for commercial breaks. SBS was no longer ‘special’.

Multilingual and multicultural programming took second place.

Tens of thousands of people protested about the commercialisation of SBS.

Three years on, the interruptions of programs for advertisements remains the biggest single annoyance to SBS viewers. Traditional supporters abandoned ship.

The legislators and those that drafted the Act say that in 1991, when SBS was granted permission to carry advertising, they never intended that a “natural program break” be interpreted in the broad way that SBS now do.

At the Senate Estimates on 30 October 2006, Senator Conroy said: “I have spoken to some of the people who were involved in drafting it [the SBS Act]”. He criticised the reinterpretation that SBS had just announced that would allow for the interruption of programs for advertisements into virtually any program. Conroy said the SBS self-penned definition of a “natural program break” was: “inconsistent with the intent of the limits that the legislation attempted to set”. The Senator was referring to the (SBS) Guidelines For The Placement of Breaks in Television Programs September 2006 which fall under the SBS Codes of Practice 2006. The Act requires the Board to determine an advertising policy. But it must be consistent with the Charter and the intent of the Act, not just the wording of the Act.

At the same Senate Estimates Senator Conroy quoted from the previous SBS Codes that defined a “natural program break” as “any pause during coverage of an event where audiences miss none of the proceedings that relate directly to the event (for example, rest periods in sports events)” for SBS-TV. That definition does not clash with the Charter or just common sense.

Legislators intended that “natural program breaks” would at least be genuine natural breaks, e.g., a ‘gap’ between acts in a live opera when there might otherwise have been a long pause, or, in similarly in live sport at half time. No one could honestly believe that the current reinterpretation of 2006, for example, the end of a scene (any scene) in a drama is a genuine natural break. It is obvious such breaks are not natural. They are forced.

The current SBS advertising Guidelines policy has pre-determined that a certain number of natural breaks per hour do exist. Even if a program has no genuine, natural breaks, they must be found. The policy says so. In daily practice, almost no room is left for the discretion of the poor bod whose task it is to force a break knowing that common sense would say: this is not a genuine natural break. The viewer suffers as does the reputation of SBS.

And since late 2006, the intent of the Act remains ignored.

All eyes are now on the new Chair of SBS, Joseph Skrzynski to lead the Board in a different direction and adopt a new model where advertisements are placed between programs and not in them. Only time will tell if the SBS Board will act as the responsible custodian of these public airwaves, respect the Charter, the SBS audience and the intent of the legislation.


The Zampatti Makeover by David Ingram. Former SBS National Training Manager (1994 to 2007) expresses his opinion that the retirement on 16 December 2009 of Carla Zampatti as the then Chair of the SBS marks “the end of perhaps the most destructive era in the multicultural broadcaster’s 34-year history”.

Bill bans ad interruptions on SBS-TV A legislative solution that would prohibit SBS from interrupting programs for commercial breaks but allow SBS to advertise between programs only.

The SBS Must Be Special Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, whose government established the Special Broadcasting Service, building on the creation of the publicly funded multi-lingual radio stations 2EA and 3EA of the Whitlam government, joined with ethnic community leaders and key figures from public life, literature and the arts calling for SBS to focus on the needs of viewers rather than on selling consumers to advertisers.

A chronology of advertising on SBS The history of advertising on SBS from subtle sponsorship in 1992 to soft sell ‘arty’ commercials of the late 1990’s right through to full blown, hard sell ‘in your face’ type advertising in 2007 and 2008. The detrimental impact to multilingual and LOTE programming caused by advertising is documented.


The SBS Codes URL for the SBS Codes of Practice 2006 may have been removed from http://www20.sbs.com.au/sbscorporate/media/documents/8487sbs_codes_of_practice_2006.pdf but now can be found at https://saveoursbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/8487sbs_codes_of_practice_2006.pdf

The SBS Advertising Guidelines URL for the (SBS) Guidelines For The Placement of Breaks in Television Programs September 2006 may have been removed from http://www20.sbs.com.au/sbscorporate/media/documents/3913advertising_guidelines_2006.pdf but now can be found at https://saveoursbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/3913advertising_guidelines_2006.pdf


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