Michael Ebeid - Address to the 2011 SPAA Conference
Thanks so much for joining me today allowing me the opportunity to talk about SBS and my ambitions for our special broadcaster over the coming years.
Today I would like to talk about:
- SBS’s future direction and the importance of why we need to be very clear about who we are and what we stand for.
- It’s essential that we are very distinctive to stand out in a cluttered marketplace and I will demonstrate how we are using our commissioning values to more clearly define ‘distinctive’.
- And today I would like to reinforce to the production sector that SBS is most definitely “open for business” – actively looking for new content ideas that will help us deliver our ambition to grow our audiences and to make more content that reflects our Charter.
The independent production sector is an incredibly important stakeholder for SBS as we draw on the resources of the Australian creative community for so much of what we produce.
It’s critical that our content strategy is clear so we are getting more of what we want to see on SBS television and the independent production sector has clarity on our commissioning strategy and direction. 2011 has been a fantastic year for SBS content.
We have truly hit what we like to call the ‘sweet spot’ with some of our commissioned content which has received critical acclaim as well as large audiences.
Go Back To Where You Came From was the most ambitious and highest rating documentary series SBS has ever produced – peaking at just under a million viewers for the final episode, making news headlines around the world, and becoming the top trending subject worldwide on Twitter for the 4 nights it went to air.
This followed on from the success of Immigration Nation – The Secret History Of Us – our most important landmark history series since First Australians.
The series attracted an average audience of 430,000 viewers, a tremendous achievement for a serious thesis-driven documentary series about our nation.
Series 3 of Who Do You Think You Are? was also in many ways our most successful yet. The quality of the stories was exceptionally high, and it attracted an average of 581,000 viewers per episode and a bigger average audience share than any other WDYTYA series to date. We have high hopes for the next series to air early next year.
SBS also had a terrific year with the Tour de France bringing larger audiences to SBS, particularly with Cadel Evans taking the crown. Opportunities such as the Tour and the World Cup are incredibly important for SBS – apart from the chance to make all important revenue (which we invest back into content), they are rare moments where SBS attracts a large and diverse audience which it sustains for weeks.
During these types of broadcasts we get the opportunity to influence viewers about our other content, hopefully seeing them return to sample more of what we have to offer.
This year we have also been very focused on our cross platform approach to content –
We launched several apps this year – TdF, World Cup and World News Australia – and continued to leverage our television audience via supporting online content.
Go Back captured this strategy perfectly – allowing us to not only to extend the reach of our content, but also reach younger audiences.
SBS’s upgraded and improved on-demand service recently launched and around 98 per cent of our content will be made available for catch-up and on-demand.
We are working on an exciting SBS On Demand App for iPad & tablets – which will transform the video on demand model to a new level.
At the heart of SBS’s future plans are our two core Corporate Goals.
To grow our audiences and to make more content that reflects our Charter.
I know many of you are sitting here today thinking that is mission impossible, that with the plethora of services now available to Australian audiences, narrowing our field of view around our Charter is potentially limiting our audience.
Well, we disagree. The key word for the future of SBS commissioned content must be distinctive.
I think it’s essential that we be more distinctive, not less.
We need to be clear about who we are, and ensure we stand out from the crowd.
I believe our strength lies in our difference and our audience knows and values that about SBS.
So let me now talk about how we define what distinctive SBS content is. Firstly it’s informed by our CHARTER. SBS’s Charter drives us to be different and compels us to reflect the true, multicultural Australia. But the misconception is that it means worthy, intellectual or niche – which couldn’t be further from the truth.
SBS wants creatively ambitious ideas based on subjects that touch the heart of our Charter, that will engage and entertain a broad audience.
Challenging, yes. Impossible, no.
I’ll share some content with you shortly that will hopefully convince you of that.
Secondly, we define distinctive content through our commissioning values.
Along with our Charter these values give SBS a strong point of difference in the Australian broadcast landscape.
Our four commissioning values are to Provoke Debate, Push Boundaries, Surprise Audiences and Inspire Change. We picked these values because SBS wants ideas that no other broadcaster would consider. We want to take risks – both creatively and with the topics we choose. We want to encourage innovation, whatever the genre.
Let me take you through some of our recent and upcoming content to give you a feel for how SBS content is embodying both the Charter and our commissioning values.
At SBS we want to push the boundaries of our television content both in terms of subject and form. We are the network that can take more creative risks. We really proved this with the success of Go Back.
Overnight these six ordinary Australians became lightning rods for national sentiment and debate about refugees and asylum seekers.
They were incredibly brave to participate in this television experiment and did what many Australians would not have dared – tested their entrenched views on refugees and asylum seekers.
What made the series work – apart from the Cordell Jigsaw and SBS crew behind it – was its authenticity and the compelling nature of the individual journeys.
The conversation started by the series - took place online, on Twitter and Facebook and around the water cooler. Go Back needs to be the new benchmark for SBS content – our content can be life affirming and life changing.
SBS conducted research on audience engagement with both Go Back and Immigration Nation – two series with vastly different formats – that explored Australia’s attitudes towards immigration and asylum seekers.
Our research which we are releasing later this week showed that both series filled a knowledge gap for the audience and that the individual journeys of the Go Back participants was the key driver for engagement in the program.
Audiences critically evaluated their own views after watching the programs and made a real connection to the people who featured in the series. This is SBS at its best – harnessing the power of modern, interesting television to bring a new perspective to old or hard debates.
SBS is already hard at work with Cordell Jigsaw on series two of Go Back. The concept and format lends itself to some pretty exciting new journeys so watch this space for more news over the coming months.
This time, it’s less about the journey and more about who takes it. Stay tuned.
To continue on Provoking Debate, in January, to coincide with the Lunar New Year, SBS will screen a three-part documentary series charting the turbulent history of the Vietnamese community seen through the prism of life in Cabramatta - called Once Upon A Time in Cabramatta.
Told for the first time by the people who were there, the series features interviews with the youth who got caught up in gang culture; politicians and police who were involved in Cabramatta’s critical moments; and the ordinary people who lived through it all – from the crime and violence, the fear and racism, a heroin epidemic and the first political assassination in Australia’s history, to the fight back - as this immigrant community found its voice.
From a community that was once paralysed by fear, Cabramatta has become a proud example of immigrant success and this series is set to tell this important Australian story in a compelling and contemporary way.
SBS’s second commissioning value is to Surprise Audiences. Audiences are very familiar with what the commercial free-to-air networks and the ABC have on offer – they all do things in a certain way.
SBS needs to become known and loved by audiences for doing the opposite – being brave, genuinely innovative, risk taking – creating a sense of anticipation for audiences when they come into our commissioned pieces.
Our next big factual entertainment series does just that. Bollywood Star – a national talent search with the incredible prize of a role in a Bollywood movie.
I’m sure some people will talk about whether SBS can do a talent search show. Well we can if we do it like this.
Like what Go Back did for documentary, I think Bollywood Star will deliver audiences a very fresh take on the established talent search genre but in a distinctly SBS way.
We can be a bit earnest at times on SBS so what excites me about Bollywood Star is its celebratory nature and fresh way to explore cultural identity & foster social inclusion.
We also have another exciting series of Who Do You Think You Are? coming up and this series promises to be the best ever.
With Michael O’Loughlin, Shaun Micallef, John Wood and Kerry O’Brien among others.
This series really hits the sweet spot with our audiences – bringing in large audiences through the personal and culturally diverse stories of famous Australians.
New series will air in late March.
SBS also actively encourages producers to push boundaries with their thinking. We need to think big and be creatively ambitious if SBS is to be heard and to be talked about and connect with our audiences.
Our upcoming eight part series The Family does just that. Essentially it’s a huge experiment in form, what happens if you take 35 remote controlled cameras, put them in one family’s home and film them without intervention from film crews for 100 days and nights.
What is now a staple of UK Channel 4’s factual offering – the fixed rig observational documentary - is an Australian first for SBS.
The series follows the lives of the Cardomone family, mum Josie, dad Angelo and their three boys David, Stefan and Adrian. Even though it was a hugely complex series to make it presents very simply.
There’s no narration, no master interviews throughout, so the viewing experience is a very different one for audiences, because you’re not artificially alerted to where the action is headed.
And to demonstrate the startling intimacy you get with this type of filming I thought I’d show you how close we get into the world of one of the rarest creatures to be captured on film – the teenager.
18-year-old Stefan has just got back late from his first date with new girlfriend Marlena and is about to embark on a four hour phone call with her from his bedroom.
While pushing the boundaries of content is one thing, SBS also takes risks with upcoming producers and incredibly important role in encouraging new talent.
Dario Russo was just 21 when he first pitched his ideas to us. We didn’t say ok great, go and talk to another production company, we gave Dario and his team the creative license and support he needed to develop his ideas and skills.
This has given birth to our brand new action, comedy series Danger 5, which is set in a bizarre, 1960’s inspired version of World War II, and follows a team of five spies on a mission to kill Adolf Hitler.
We placed this Trailer on You Tube and in its first week it got almost 200,000 views. Currently placed No 10. As the most viewed clip on You Tube.
The online only ‘prequel series’ for Danger 5 starts on Nov 20th – it will be a great case study and great example of using multiple platforms.
You’ll see that it continues SBS’s grand tradition of pushing the boundaries with comedy. Let’s take a look.
The fourth and final commissioning value is to Inspire Change.
We’re a public broadcaster so we should have lofty ambitions for our commissioned content.
We want people to see things from different perspectives, think differently about subjects or try new things - which is exactly what our food content does.
On Thursdays our various commissioned food series are clearly what really connects with audiences.
Luke Nguyen set the benchmark for high quality Australian made travel and food series.
His third series for us Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong will continue to deliver the high standard we’ve come to expect from Luke and his producers.
At SBS we don’t do ‘cooking shows’ we do food programs that act as a conduit to experience other cultures.
And our current new series Peter Kuruvita’s My Sri Lanka (airing now) really takes it to the next level.
The series looks amazing, Peter is fantastic TV talent and I have no doubt audiences will be inspired to get out of their cooking comfort zone and try something different once they see it – or maybe even get on a plane and discover an amazing part of the world.
I think we are fortunate to have some great talent in Luke & Peter, Lyndey Milan and Mauve O’Meara just to name a few.
These are just some of the highlights we have coming up this year. I hope from this brief glimpse you can see how our Charter and commissioning values are already starting to deliver wide-ranging content to build on our legacy of stand-out SBS shows such as First Australians and East West 101.
Being more Distinctive and entertaining can go hand in hand.
As many of you are aware, funding is a critical issue for SBS. Since joining SBS there have been many difficult decisions to make and many unpalatable messages for both SBS staff and for our partners in the production community.
But despite some dire predictions from commentators, SBS is not on its knees and I am not here to deliver a doomsday message. Quite the opposite.
Yes our budgets are tight – they always have been; yes our funding – both Government and commercial is challenged – again, this has long been the situation.
But you can see that we are still an incredibly successful network, with talented people who know how to invest our limited resources to deliver quality content.
I am urging all of SBS’s stakeholders to imagine just how successful we could be with further investment from the Australian Government. A dollar in SBS’s hands is worth five or more dollars because we stretch it further than the other networks.
We continue to actively seek content ideas in all genres. We still have sizeable commissioning budgets to spend next year and the years after.
In documentaries we want to build on the huge success stories of Immigration Nation and Go Back with highly talked about, bold and ambitious series that explore Australian multicultural society.
In drama it was with enormous regret we had to cancel DUSTY. We’d been nurturing the series for over two years but we simply cannot afford a 13-part high end drama series. This is particularly sad as we have a tradition of distinctive, risk taking drama. The last of these was the much acclaimed EAST WEST 101.
However, we’re down but not quite out for drama. We will continue to develop one or two short drama works, keeping our fingers crossed for an injection of money to produce these come next year. We’re looking for short run, high-impact, fact-based stories that have a provocative edge to them. And with further funding – we will return to the longer form Dramas.
We’ve also not been able to commission as much comedy as we would like. We’ve a strong history of comedy that is very different - the great international success story of Wilfred, Bogan Pride from Matchbox, Paul Fenech’s body of work, and of course our new series DANGER 5 which will transmit in February.
We continue to look for great and fresh new Australian comedy – we must unearth some new Australian talent.
In entertainment we’re looking for a big new series that puts exciting and fresh new multicultural talent on screen, and in food we have big plans to expand on the great connection we have built with audiences through Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam and Peter Kuruvita’s My Sri Lanka.
We are increasingly looking for cross-platform opportunities as well as online specific commissions that push the boundaries of those platforms and offer our audiences new ways of connecting with us.
Many of you will have heard the Government approached SBS earlier this year to assist them in delivering a national free-to-air Indigenous television service to replace NITV.
This is an exciting opportunity for SBS and we have been in productive and fruitful discussions with the Government and NITV about how this service may be delivered by SBS.
We have a long and proud history of delivering high quality, compelling Indigenous content. First Australians, Remote Area Nurse and The Circuit are just a handful of examples and, of course, we deliver our Indigenous news and current affairs service – Living Black.
These discussions are ongoing and the outcome still not yet finalised.
It’s important that SBS receive adequate funding for this service if we are to add an Indigenous service to our suite of channels. It’s not an acceptable situation for SBS’s remit to broaden without the means to deliver a channel the calibre of our first two.
Over the coming months we expect to be able to reveal more about how a transition to a new Indigenous service may take place.
The potential for SBS’s content to be life changing cannot be understated.
For more than three decades we have delivered distinctive content from Australia and around the world.
We’ve championed formats and series where others feared to tread and we have been a great testing ground for many shows that other networks now poach or wish they had.
SBS will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role as Convergence challenges other networks and their willingness and ability to deliver high levels of Australian content.
For SBS to fulfil its Charter we need to be telling more Australian stories not less especially when you consider that Australia is becoming more diverse, not less.
We punch well above our weight when you consider our TV operating budgets are about one-fifth of the average of the other 4 networks….but that’s always been the case.
We are hopeful of a successful triennial funding outcome in May next year which would deliver an investment boost to sustain and grow SBS’s services over the coming years. We are ready to take SBS to the next level.
Your support, as our important production partners, is crucial over the coming months.
Consider for a moment what an adequately funded SBS could achieve – the calibre of series like Go Back across the year, increased and sustained investment in drama, more factual, more food, more distinctly Australian stories.
That’s part of my ambition for SBS and one I hope everyone here will support me in delivering.
So by all means take away from today a taste of what our talented content team has on the slate for 2011 and 2012.
But also, if you can, support us in our quest to treble the levels of Australian content on SBS for 2012 and beyond, and do continue to bring us fantastic content ideas.
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