Multicultural broadcaster SBS has confirmed there will be a major refresh of current affairs investigative program Dateline to a new ‘lighter’ format, but has downplayed suggestions by an ex-supervising producer of the show that looming budget cuts were driving the changes.
News website Crikey this afternoon published a strongly worded critique of the changes at Dateline (paywall) by supervising producer of the show Alan Hogan, which accuses the public broadcaster of having a secret plan to gut much of the program’s investigative journalism and claiming there is only enough funding to cover 10 new stories in the remainder of the financial year.
News of the changes and Hodges’s opinion piece broke during the middle of SBS 2015 Upfronts. When approached after the event SBS managing director Michael Ebeid said: “We are returning Dateline with a new format, a new line up of talent and will have a completely different feel and energy in the sort of stories that it is doing.
“It is unfortunate that the individual has written what he has because it is a disgruntled employee, at the end of the day. Alan was a contributor to Dateline. The changes we are making at Dateline have nothing to do with budget cuts.
“The budget is going to be the same for Dateline. We are just refreshing it, doing new things with it and unfortunately not everyone likes change.”
Challenged on what those changes would mean for the program Ebeid revealed that he felt the award winning show was in a “difficult slot” at 9.30pm on a Tuesday and needed to be in a “lighter” format.
“The format is still being decided. It is way too early and we have more great ideas with what we are going to do with Dateline but we haven’t resolved them yet,” said Ebeid.
“I do think that Dateline brought some really important stories from around the world for us and there is a lot going on in the world. But we do need to make the program a little bit lighter and that’s part of the direction that it will be going.
“Serious news and current affairs at 9.30pm at night is always difficult. It’s is a difficult slot.”
Ebeid’s comments come in response to a critique by Hogan which claimed that management was seeking to keep the news of the changes to one of SBS’s flagship programs from the public.
“Next Tuesday the last Dateline for 2014 will mark a watershed moment for the program that has run for 30 years, earning the praise of its peers and the respect of its loyal viewers,” he wrote.
“Not that SBS is about to make that decision public. So far the broadcaster has kept it very quiet, but if pressed management will argue that in some form or another the program will still be on air next year. But planned budget cuts mean it can only be a shadow of its former self.”
He also argued that the imminent funding cuts tipped to strip $100m from SBS over five years were a factor in the changes.
“At a recent staff meeting news and current affairs chief Jim Carroll said there was only enough funding to cover 10 new stories in the remainder of the financial year to June 2015. On the basis of three stories in an hour-long program, that’s funding for just three programs over six months.”
Ebeid denied these claims but would not give details of the cuts. It is understood the well respected Bernadine Lim has however been confirmed as executive producer Peter Charley, who departed recently.
“I have a meeting in a couple of weeks to go through that but it is very early days,” he said. “Dateline is a program that has been running for 30 years on SBS. We are very proud Dateline is returning next year without a doubt.
“Peter’s term ended and that’s part of what we are doing, bringing in a new EP and take the program in a new direction.”
The SBS boss said details of the new line up and format would be announced in the “coming weeks”. He also described Hogan role as more of a “contributor” to the program even though the SBS Dateline website still lists him as supervising producer.
During the upfronts presentation Ebeid spoke about the looming spectre of the funding cuts but said he was confident the broadcaster could deal with the impact.
“I am absolutely confident that we as an organisation have the ability to absorb the cuts that are impending, that we have all read about, without compromising our unique content,” he said.
“We will continue to make investments in the content area because we believe these are critical to our audience and to our advertisers.”
Update: Dateline host Anjali Rao has tweeted over the weekend confirming that she has resigned as the host of the program.