SBS – too small to matter, too important to kill

Later this year, SBS will celebrate its 30th anniversary as full time TV service. Unless something changes, I doubt it will be around to celebrate a 40th.

Depending how you look at it, SBS either needs to get a lot bigger, or a lot smaller.  

Last week saw a provocative call from Sydney Morning Herald opinion editor Tim Dick to close SBS and spend the $200m revenue on directly funding journalism instead.

And topically enough, Friday saw SBS boss Shaun Brown give his own speech in defence of SBS’s remit.

As he put it on Friday:

“SBS continues to balance its responsibility to meet the diverse communications needs of Australia’s multicultural community while informing, educating and entertaining all Australians.”

SBS’s stated purpose goes slightly further than that, adding: “and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society”.

And Brown also inadvertently put his finger on the problem. In that same speech, he posed the question:

“Should SBS be proud that it first exposed the issue of attacks on Indian students and then provided on-going coverage of developments, including a full scale Insight televised debate?”

The issue with that, is that while SBS may have been onto the issue first, it didn’t reach a mainstream Australian consciousness until fellow public service broadcaster, the ABC stepped in with a Four Corners investigation last July. Until Brown’s comment’s I’d personally thought of this as an ABC-led issue.

Check out Google News for the volume of coverage on the issue. The conversation only ignited when propelled by the combination of events and the more widely reaching ABC.

Many people would simple have been unaware that SBS was onto it first. And that’s the problem. Not enough English-speaking Aussies are spending enough time with the channel. The part about informing all Australians about the multicultural society simply isn’t happening.

During the speech, Brown listed the programmes SBS does to reach that wider audience: dramas like The Circuit and East West 101 and documentaries like First Australians. I bet he’d have struggled to reel off another five equally impressive examples though.

And the lack of reach is getting worse.

Take a look at last week’s TV ratings figures from OzTam. Among younger Australians, SBS1 isn’t just the fifth channel now, it’s the sixth.

Last week, for instance, in the 16-39 demographic, SBS1 rated a 4.1% share. That was well behind the 5% scored by Nine’s second channel Go.

If Seven2 continues to grow, soon SBS1 will be the seventh. Then ABC3 and the soon-to-be-launched ABC news channel will probably come past and SBS1 will be the ninth.

Even if Ten’s sport channel One, doesn’t come past, we’ll probably see Nine and Seven launch another new digital channel each before the end of the year. It’s reasonably likely that there will be days that, among younger viewers, SBS will be only the 11th most watched channel.

Ironically, two of the three biggest audiences for Go last week were for Top Gear, which Nine outbid SBS for last year. Another reason for English-speaking Aussies to tune in and maybe be  exposed to other SBS material has gone. At its present size, it doesn’t have the budgets to compete.

A big part of the issue now is that if SBS didn’t exist, you wouldn’t need to invent it. Certainly not if you take SBS remit as only one of informing the non English speaking community about what’s going on on other parts of the world. If you have access to good broadband, then rather than wait for the hour or two that it’s your language’s turn, you’ll stream it or read it online. So, as Brown said in his speech, the SBS needs to be about more than that, yet at the moment too much of its programming is simply rebroadcasting from elsewhere.

Which comes back to the case for making the broadcaster big enough to have a reach and an impact, which is what I think it needs. It needs shows that, yes, put up a mirror to Australian society, but also have a wider audience.

It needs to do something to attract that audience. In the UK, Big Brother lived on public service channel Channel 4. Not only did it prove to be an audience and ratings (like SBS, Channel 4 is ad-funded) driver, but it started as a brave broadcasting experiment. And it sparked some massive debates about racism in the UK too. If SBS is going to get bigger, it’ll need to do something similarly game-changing. If not (and probably not) Big Brother, then something similarly far-reaching.

SBS would never be able to afford what Ten paid for the Big Brother format (or indeed compete for it if Ten ever wanted it back on). But perhaps some kind of radical model like a revenue share with the format owner might be the way.

But that’s somewhat pie in the sky. But the point it, SBS can’t go on like it is. And I suspect that simply asking the government for more money is pie in the sky too.

And I’d argue against killing it. The ABC needs a second public service voice to keep it honest. If SBS wasn’t around, the ABC would probably need to be split.

With the arrival of multichannels, this is becoming urgent. By the time SBS’s birthday arrives in October, it will be critical.

Tim Burrowes


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