SBS - The Real Story
You might think it strange, even masochistic, that at this time of all times Iâ€™m here today to try and stimulate greater media coverage on the role of public broadcasting and SBS!
Iâ€™m not complaining about the number of recent column inches â€“ how could I, SBS has set new coverage records in recent days - but I am suggesting too much of it skirts around the real issues, the real challenges facing public broadcasters.
I have no doubt the majority of Australians support the concept of public broadcasting. But the predominant feature of media and other commentary is a rather myopic focus on public broadcasting and advertising. And that really misses the point.
A real debate about public broadcasting in Australia would contain more voices than those who simply oppose or support advertising.
And in a real debate, those who argue that the definitions of public broadcasting should evolve to meet societal and industry changes would not be marginalised in the debate or characterised as commercial interlopers.
I believe we do public broadcasting in this country no favours by homogenising our views on what is right. Whatâ€™s worse - we risk condemning public broadcasting to a slow death by irrelevance.
One thing is clear, the absence of real debate means that most Australians are of the view there is only one true model of public broadcasting â€“ that of the ABC, borne of the BBC.
The basic elements of this so-called traditional model are:
- a Charter with a public service remit;
- 100 per cent taxpayer funding;
- substantial national facilities; and
- quality content â€“ particularly news and current affairs.
Let me pose this question. Which of the above characteristics is really the most important for contemporary public broadcasting - the funding model, the real estate portfolio or the content?
Most commentators get bogged down in the funding model. But clearly content that delivers on Charter obligations and connects with its audience must be the most important factor.
After all, internationally, fully taxpayer funded broadcasters are the exception rather than the rule. Around the world, cash strapped public broadcasters are looking to raise more revenue, increase efficiencies or reduce capital spending by outsourcing.
This is the reality. And it exposes the blinkered thinking of those who advocate only the ABC/BBC model as being proper public broadcasting. To ignore this reality is to ignore the need for public broadcasting to evolve in order to survive.
My address today will touch on these broader issues seen through the prism of SBSâ€™s experience of breaking that traditional mould as we strive to become a world leader in content creation and delivery.
At SBS we are very focused on our content because it is what makes us distinctive. Itâ€™s what makes us relevant and it gives a broad range of Australians access to different points of view.
Our Charter characterises SBS as a multilingual and multicultural broadcaster. Everyone knows that. But it seems to me that too few realise we also have an explicit and unambiguous directive to reach out to â€˜all Australiansâ€™.
By charging us with that responsibility, the Charter ensures that SBS must not and cannot be defined by its audience.
Rather the Charter requires us to be defined by our content and services, reflecting Australiaâ€™s multicultural society to all Australians.
Quite simply, I donâ€™t believe that we can reflect Australiaâ€™s multicultural society by only showing programs from other countries. The Australian story of inclusiveness can only be reflected in our dramas, our documentaries and our entertainment programs.
The need to reflect Australiaâ€™s diversity is the motivation behind one of the significant recent changes in SBS Televisionâ€“ the commitment to make and show more Australian programs.
Nowhere else on Australian television can you see a greater commitment to telling Australian stories, to rewarding Australian creativity and to nurturing talent in the Australian media industry.
SBS radio has long been producing Australian content and delivering it in languages that speak to new arrivals as well as second, third and fourth generation multilingual Australians.
Now SBS television is making Australian content a core part of its programming.
Last year alone SBS scheduled 376 hours of prime time Australian programming and this from the Australian broadcaster that operates on the smallest budget.
Weâ€™ve just finished showing The Circuit starring Gary Sweet and Aaron Pedersen. This drama based in Western Australia may be fictitious but it is confronting Indigenous issues that are very much front page news and firmly on the political agenda.
East West 101 will broadcast later this year. A gritty police drama set in the Western Suburbs of Sydney, it is based on a real team of detectives from Egyptian, Indigenous, Chinese and Greek backgrounds. It is raw, confronting and absolutely authentic.
Another upcoming feature is Parent Rescue which will air in September. Apart from being incredibly useful television which engages viewers with the real life stories of parents struggling to cope with their kids, SBS has transformed the content into an invaluable resource.
Our subtitling unit has created an information stream in other languages which will be published online. This is the reverse model of what SBS might normally do â€“ instead of buying content which we then subtitle, we have created English language programming about a universal issue and then turned it into an information resource that crosses language barriers.
SBS will also air the Australian version of UK genealogy program â€“ Who Do You Think You Are? - a series of personal detective stories where well known Australians discover their roots.
Inevitably, they also tend to come to the realisation that whatever their cultural identity today, the chances are their ancestors are a fascinating mix of cultural and ethnic diversity.
And SBS will shortly broadcast First Australians â€“ the first television series to document the Indigenous history of Australia. It is quite extraordinary that this has not been done before, but it should surprise no-one that SBS is the one to do it.
SBS news and current affairs is also going from strength to strength. Right now Iâ€™d argue SBS is the only Australian network pumping significant additional investment into quality journalism.
Insight, in my view, is the strongest and most relevant domestic current affairs show on air. Datelineâ€™s commitment to courageous and original journalism is unmatched. Living Black is the only indigenous current affairs show in prime time in Australia.
World News Australia in its new hour long format is, after just six months, a great success. Despite what I constantly read, its ratings across the hour are on par with the same time slot last year. But more importantly, itâ€™s allowed us to expand the range and depth of our coverage to the benefit of viewers who are looking for a more comprehensive and complete service than is offered by other networks.
More SBS journalists are reporting from overseas locations, more newsmakers, including world leaders, are opting to appear on our program. To my critics I pose this question. Do they really believe that television news in Australia should be the fast food of our industry, committed only to short sound bites and quick summaries? SBS, as it does in so many other areas, represents a quality alternative to that type of thinking.
And, of course, SBS is the only place on Australian television where viewers can find a raft of provocative and informative documentaries â€“ both Australian made and sourced from overseas.
It is this quality content that defines SBS â€“ not our audience.
Some defenders of the old view of public broadcasting in Australia would argue that SBS should exist on the fringe and that our lack of audience should be a badge we wear with pride.
I disagree wholeheartedly. How can we be relevant, justify the public expenditure and meet our Charter obligations if only a fraction of Australians are tuning in?
Which brings me to the basic misunderstanding about SBS. It irks me that even in 2007 I can be interviewed about SBS and still be asked â€“ â€œbut what about your ethnic audience?â€
SBS occupies a unique position in the Australian media landscape â€“ for while we embrace cultural diversity, we are viewed by a mass audience. We are for all Australians.
For instance about 40% of Australians watch SBS television each week. But over a month SBS reaches out to around 60 per cent of Australians.
SBS viewers are people who are on the go, want to be updated and want to know more about the world.
SBS evokes a sense of community and our staunchest supporters are passionate about our legacy and continued existence.
It is no more true to say that we exist for ethnic Australians than it is to say that all ethnic Australians watch or listen to SBS because they are ethnic. Such generalisations belittle all of us.
Clearly, Australians that do tune into SBS â€“ and they do so in increasing numbers â€“ do so to rendezvous with our content and it is the quality of that content that keeps them coming back for more.
But it is common knowledge that content â€“ particularly television content â€“ is not cheap, and thatâ€™s where our advertising revenue plays such a vital role.
The majority of our Government funding each year is spent on the mechanics of just keeping us on air. It is our commercial revenue that enables SBS to make or buy the actual programs audiences enjoy.
Creating enough content is no mean feat when you consider that apart from television, SBS online encompasses 130 individual websites and SBS Radio broadcasts in around 70 languages.
Now I acknowledge there was consternation when SBS moved its television ads within programs as opposed to between. I can assure you this was a decision that was not taken lightly. And of course, the five minute per hour limit still remains.
But I remain convinced that SBS had no choice for the following reasons.
First, the large indigestible blocks of ads, up to eight minutes long, that used to be shown between programs meant we lost a significant proportion of our audience at the end of a show and subsequently lost the opportunity to tell them about our upcoming features.
Whatâ€™s more, advertisers were rejecting this model and the resulting prognosis was for our revenue â€“ the vital funding for content â€“ to steadily decline. Doing nothing didnâ€™t mean standing still, it meant going backwards.
Our in-program breaks have been implemented over the last six months and I believe our television audience has, however reluctantly, adapted.
Over that same six month period, we have had record ratings with an audience share of six per cent compared to 5.4 per cent in 2006. This growth has outstripped any other free-to-air network in Australia demonstrating the quality and appeal of our programming.
I know for some in public broadcasting ratings is a dirty word.
Yet ratings or size of audience are important to both commercial and public broadcasters. In commercial TV the equation is simple - ratings equal revenue.
But even for fully funded public broadcasters like the ABC ratings are important. They are a measure of engagement with the audience, in other words a measure of relevance. Ignore that measure at your peril.
For SBS â€“ a hybrid funded public broadcaster â€“ ratings equal relevance and revenue.
Ratings will continue to be important at SBS â€“ but they will never be the lone consideration in decisions about content, nor should they be.
Having a smaller audience in comparison to other Australian broadcasters can often be a positive. It allows SBS to be innovative and take risks on content.
But exist too far on that fringe and people will begin to question your long term relevance and ask why you are there at all. I am not willing to sentence SBS to a life of irrelevance and eventual death and nor do I believe the broader Australian community is.
The bottom line is that SBSâ€™s record ratings and quality programming line-up will deliver us increased advertising revenues.
But the important thing to remember is that any additional revenue generated by in-program breaks is not for the benefit of the back pockets of shareholders, it is for the benefit of our evolving audience.
Much has been made about how such decisions mean SBS is departing from the traditional model of public broadcasting. The inference is that it undermines our credibility and impartiality. Some would say the mere presence of advertising means we have lost our independence.
This is an appropriate venue, the National Press Club, for such a proposition to be recognised for its absurdity. To believe that the mere presence of advertising corrupts editorial independence is to condemn all Australian print journalists to the role of commercial puppets.
The truth is that, as with our colleagues in print, our journalists continue to make decisions based on editorial values, not commercial objectives.
I also do not subscribe to the view that to be a successful public broadcaster SBS needs to make everything we show or own every single piece of equipment needed to deliver our services.
This is but one of the points of differentiation between the SBS and ABC â€“ and I think it is an important one.
Unlike the ABC, SBS does not and should not aspire to owning vast studios in every Australian state. We do not need to own our transmission equipment and, as a principle, where it makes sense â€“ we will look to outsource.
That is why we recently moved to commissioning all of our program production from the independent sector apart from news and current affairs. And it is why we are currently negotiating with Red Bee Media to outsource our presentation and play-out functions.
We are the first Australian broadcaster to do so. But I would suggest that within the next year other networks will announce they are following in the path of SBS.
SBS explores these opportunities because I take the view that successful public broadcasting should not be measured by what you own. How does that make you a good broadcaster or ensure your independence or the quality of your content?
I like to tell a story about a visit I made to the Irish public broadcaster RTE a few years ago.
I was shown around by a high ranking executive called the Facilities Manager. Such titles were common in the seventies when the control of in house facilities represented considerable power.
He set about showing me five large studios all under his control. To one degree or another they were all occupied â€“ except the last one. The consternation of the manager was apparent. â€œIâ€™ve got to persuade the commissioning editors to come up with a program to fill this studio,â€ he said.
Iâ€™m sure RTE has changed but the truth is many old public broadcasters followed the same approach. Production decisions were led by the need to fill fixed internal capacity. The option of adjusting capacity to free up other ways of creating content just didnâ€™t get a look in.
By contrast, SBS makes a virtue of agility and creativity, commissioning programs solely on the merit of the idea and its potential appeal to audiences.
SBS is an example of how there is no one template for public broadcasting or for funding it. Contrary to popular myth, we are not anomalous in the international public broadcasting landscape for having ads.
RTE in Ireland derives half of its income from commercial sources, Canadian public broadcaster CBC has advertising as does TVNZ. RAI â€“ the Italian public broadcaster - is also hybrid funded..
France, Germany and a litany of smaller European nations also feature ads and Channel Four in the UK is a full commercial channel although, importantly, is still bound by a public service remit and operates as a not-for-profit.
Some might claim this is evidence of the demise of public broadcasting.
But the reality is that even though many support the public broadcasting ideal - most countries struggle to find the money to adequately support it.
In Australia the taxpayer contributes more than $2.5 billion over the triennium for the ABC alone.
SBS receives more modest annual funding of around $185 million a year to deliver similar services on the same geographic scale.
With such levels of investment and rising costs, countries around the world have had to face serious questions about the future of public broadcasting.
The UK recently completed an assessment of public broadcasting.
It recognised that changing technologies, markets and the increasing demand of consumers for greater choice are challenging both the broader media industry and public broadcasting in particular.
One of the central conclusions by UK regulator Ofcom was that the traditional framework for public broadcasting would not survive the move to the digital age.
It also concluded that public broadcasting would only continue to be successful if it is delivered by different suppliers, with access to different sources of funding and with different institutional models.
Undeniably, SBS does a lot with a little and where resources have been lacking, we have taken difficult decisions to generate the money necessary to continue to create great content. I believe this means we are seen in a favourable light by the Government.
But our commercial success should not be seen as a reason to reduce levels of public funding or as a reason for retaining our base funding at current levels.
Because if SBS does not receive a real increase in funds â€“ then in the not too distant future there will be a very real question mark over our existence. I do not say this lightly.
I have spoken to both major parties over the last couple of months and have been received warmly, have been given a fair hearing and received assurances that what SBS is doing is well regarded by those on the Hill.
All of those things are nice to hear. But we are yet to see either party commit any funds to the future of SBS. In fact, the political debate about the future of public broadcasting has been non-existent.
Both parties acknowledge the digital challenge. The Government has established Digital Australia, penned a Digital Action Plan and is spending more than a billion dollars to assist the ABC and SBS with the infrastructure needed for digital television and digital radio. This is welcome.
But neither party, in looking towards the next election, has committed any additional funds for SBS to create the content for the new platforms.
Both the SBS and ABC operate under funding models and Charters that were established in an analogue world â€“ before online, before digital and before broadband.
Yet we are expected to expand our services and adapt them to these new platforms without additional support. It is not enough for SBS to use its digital multi-channel to simulcast or time shift our current programming.
On behalf of our audience, we have ambitions to create new content that will live across all platforms, ultimately making the digital experience an attractive one and, in turn, driving digital take-up.
It simple defies logic that the Government would spend a billion dollars on the infrastructure for digital switchover but not make any provision for content to drive the take-up needed to make the switch.
It is like buying a Lamborghini and then not having enough money to fill it with petrol.
After all, there is a compelling cost benefit analysis for digital switchover.
The Government would no longer have to fund the expensive simulcast for the SBS and the ABC, and would have the remaining analogue spectrum to dispose of.
With a modest injection of funds â€“ around $20 million per annum â€“ SBS could launch SBS2 and help drive digital take-up.
These comments are not designed to be a lone attack on the incumbent Government. We are also yet to hear from Labor on the issue of public broadcasting in Australia.
What is clear is that whoever is in office after the next election must grapple with the digital challenge and the broader question of the sustainability of public broadcasting in Australia.
And in considering future policy directions I am more than willing as the current custodian of SBS to have the organisation come under scrutiny, because I think we would fare well.
But part of that scrutiny â€“ and it would be foolish to think otherwise â€“ will likely involve questions about the need for SBS to exist.
There may be some astonishment at my decision to even suggest it, but clearly if our viability is under question in years to come, the Government of the day may consider relegating SBS to a side-service of the ABC.
I would hazard a guess that this would be welcomed by the ABC.
However, I think this would be a disastrous outcome and a great loss for Australian audiences and I think it ignores the reality that the ABC and SBS are very different beasts.
For such a small market Australia is lucky to have two public broadcasters and we would be diminished if either of them disappeared.
Plurality of views is important â€“ and SBS very much fills a void in the Australian media landscape.
To speak in terms that will titillate the media and commentators - the only rationale for putting SBS inside the ABC would be to achieve commercialisation of the ABC by stealth â€“ a Trojan horse you might say.
I hope that the public broadcasting discussion in Australia does not come to this but I am prepared to argue for SBSâ€™s continued independence if it does.
In concluding my remarks I would also point out a fifth element of the traditional model of public broadcasting - that of the role of Managing Director and his or her inevitable portrayal as either Villain or Hero.
I accept there is a level of personal scrutiny that comes with the territory.
On a personal note, I will take any criticism thatâ€™s levelled at me and engage and hopefully broaden the debate about it.
But on one matter I want to be absolutely clear. There is not a shred of evidence that SBS is dumbing down. In all the column inches published in recent weeks not one of my critics has cited examples of programs that are on SBS but shouldnâ€™t be or examples of past successful programs that they feel should still be on SBS.
Indeed if you go to the TV pages and read the recommended viewing list SBS punches well above its weight, not because of the popularity of the programs but because they represent a distinctive, quality offering not available on any other network.
There are some tough decisions to be made to ensure SBSâ€™s survival and it is my job to make them. Doing nothing is simply not an option.
I discussed this with one of my most committed media critics last year. I outlined what I saw as the stark choice facing SBS. Insert ads in programs so that we can preserve, possibly even grow, our quality and range of programs. Or leave the old failing model in place and accept lower revenues with the resulting cuts in programs and staff.
â€œWhat would you do?â€ I asked.
â€œLeave the ads where they are and cut the programsâ€, he said.
That strategy, if it could be dignified as such, would condemn SBS to terminal decline. There are always people in any industry, and particularly in mine, who advocate â€œdonâ€™t change anythingâ€.
Well, in my view, neglect by inaction will kill the very service they profess to love.
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