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What’s on for SBS in the fight for public broadcasting’s future?

SBS has become riskier and more investigative in recent years, commissioning shows like Go Back To Where You Came From. AAP/SBS

Due to Australia’s small population and high concentration of few media voices, public broadcasters play a pivotal role in shaping the media ecosystem and cultural landscape. With the ABC and SBS under scrutiny ahead of the budget, The Future of Public Broadcasting series looks at the role of these taxpayer funded broadcasters, how they shape our media and whether they provide value for money.

When retiring SBS chairman Joseph Skrzynski spoke at the National Press Club this month, he took aim at the two antagonistic propositions that have bedevilled the broadcaster since its inception. Why should government be in the business of multicultural broadcasting? And if it is, why isn’t SBS part of the ABC?

Quoting but not naming Liberal Party ideologue Peter Reith on the supposed nonsense of government taxing consumers to pay for a service that can be provided by free enterprise, Skrzynski argued that SBS is becoming ever more critical in the process of integrating new immigrants into Australian society and exposing all Australians to the world around them.

And with ABC chairman Jim Spigelman having more than enough to do to protect the ABC, now would be the worst possible time to throw the lean, efficient and advertising-carrying SBS into the maw of the other national broadcaster’s woes.

A brief history of SBS

Initially, SBS was a radio broadcaster providing music and promotional material to ethnic communities during the 1975 start-up of Medibank. It then became the focus for the Fraser government’s review of services for immigrants. The review’s chair, Frank Galbally, thought up the idea of a full-on broadcasting service delivering radio and TV during a lunchtime stroll away from a meeting of his review committee. He returned and shortly thereafter the thought bubble became a policy proposal.

The idea was controversial at the time. It required the strong support of prime minister Malcolm Fraser and his adviser Petro Georgiou to steer the proposal through the Liberals’ partyroom. They had to take on the antagonistic criticisms of the commercial media and the Labor Party around the proposition rejected by the ABC that it take on a multicultural broadcasting function – or that there should be a multicultural channel at all.

SBS began as a radio service in 1978 and launched its own TV station in 1980.

With the advent of cable TV, SBS created Studio and World Movies, while also building an innovative online digital platform for interactive documentaries. And in 2012, it became the launch platform for the National Indigenous Television Service.

In recent times

SBS repositioned itself under the Skrzynski board in three key complementary arenas. The board insisted that SBS would not be a “neutral” broadcaster (and increasingly irrelevant and dull as it had been during the Howard years), but rather would be an advocate of a human rights-based exploration of Australian cultural diversity.

SBS would become riskier and more investigative, building a body of media productions that tested the limits of where Australians were going in this increasingly multicultural nation. Beginning with Liberal Rule in 2009, SBS broadcast Immigration Nation in 2010, then the Go Back To Where You Came From series and the first of the Once Upon a Time In… series in 2012.

Meanwhile, in a major restructuring of its core business of “ethnic” radio, it worked off the 2011 Census to cut back many of the longer-term radio programs with declining audiences to address the critical communication needs of newer and often more traumatised communities.

Removing access has always been a difficult exercise, especially as “mid-range” communities began to age and older people reverted increasingly to their languages of origin. In their place, SBS introduced more African and Indian languages.

The television challenge

However, SBS was still confronted with the problem of building audiences for television. The commercial channels and the converging media interests of the major press duopoly resented its concentration of viewers in the higher income groups, while SBS’ “star” shows did not quite attract the big advertisers that the audience size would suggest.

These advertisers concentrated on Channels 7, 9 and 10, leaving SBS marketers with something of a struggle to “bite” into their advertising dollar. Even that has begun to turn in the last year or so after SBS’ advertising function was brought in-house.

Does the struggle for advertising revenue mean that SBS should charge “down-market”, seeking a more populist and supposedly “dumbed-down” audience? Or should SBS hold its nerve as a believer in the desire of Australian audiences for intelligent, educative and satisfying programming?

This programming could come in the form of the intricacies of the round ball game, the gustatory excitement of cooking something that would test the skills of the contestants on My Kitchen Rules, or investigatory documentaries that dig into the darker side of Australian multiculturalism.

SBS marketers have had something of a struggle to ‘bite’ into mainstream networks’ advertising dollar. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Into the future

In a vision/search exercise undertaken for SBS in late 2013 (to be reported on in May), research focused on where Australians thought their country was going to be in a decade or more’s time. The majority saw Australia continuing to grow as a multicultural society.

One part of those surveyed was attracted by the cosmopolitan grandeur of the possibilities ahead, and the other part was apprehensive at the speed of change and the overwhelming of traditional community and lifestyles that they worried it threatened.

SBS remains where it has been since its inception. It is a symbol of changing cultural flows, an adaptive, innovative and historically under-resourced multi-platform publisher, an anathema to the conservative right and a constantly challenged institution trying to ride the waves of much larger political conflicts.

SBS may face some significant cuts in the May budget. If the so-called “efficiency dividend” is implemented for the public broadcasters – as has been mooted – it will catch SBS as well as achieving its goal of hobbling the ABC.

The inquiry launched by communications minister Malcolm Turnbull into the “shared efficiencies” of linking SBS and the ABC more intimately (not quite an amalgamation but not quite not, either) may produce some unexpected outcomes. Not the least of these could be the use of SBS as a model for hybrid funding that could be infused into the ABC. Turnbull has intimated that the ABC would like to absorb SBS, though he does not believe that makes good business sense.

Skrzynski answered his own question about the future of SBS by demonstrating that if there was any sense in the government, SBS would be allowed to get on with its job. It would be sidelined from the battle over the ABC, in which it can play very little useful part, and be allowed to address the continually changing and challenging issues produced by Australian diversity in an evolving immigration nation.

Read more articles in The Future of Public Broadcasting.

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