TV prevents 'digital ghettos': SBS

SBSIn part three of our series on the future of Australian TV, Encore spoke with Bruce Meagher, director of strategy and communications for SBS.

The public broadcaster has been under attack for its limited audience reach, but according to Meagher, SBS is now more relevant than ever, if Australia wants to avoid the creation of ‘digital ghettos’.

Encore: How can the digital multi-channels help SBS fulfil its objectives as Australia’s multicultural voice amongst the broadcasters?

Bruce Meagher: We certainly see some great opportunities with the multi-channels.

We already feel like a narrowcaster or a niche broadcaster in some ways, particularly in relation to language content that we broadcast. We do two things: one, we appeal to the community that speaks that language; and secondly, we introduce other Australians to different cultures.

The limitations of having one channel over the years meant that we haven’t been able to show as much of that diversity of content as we’d like to do. What the multi-channels do is offer the opportunity to expand that narrowcasting we do and really increase the number of languages and cultures that we can give exposure to.

Ideally, what does SBS need in terms of funding and audience levels to make the most out of its multi-channels?

I don’t know if there’s an absolute number that’s right- clearly we are underfunded at the moment to really make full use of our second and potentially third channel. So we would look to talk to the government as we have in the past, about how we might go about fixing that. To be honest it doesn’t have to be a huge amount of money for the kind of content we’re looking for, because it is quite specialised.

In terms of audience numbers there are two things we’re doing: trying to appeal to a broad audience, and meeting a gap in the market to provide services for small communities that otherwise miss out on things. Audience isn’t necessarily a good measure if you’ve got a valuable service that is loved and highly used by a small group with particular needs.

Are there plans to create original content specifically for the multi-channel?

We are looking at creating content that would be focused on particular language and cultural communities for some specialised programming.

In general terms, SBS2 will be a multilingual channel and it’s already mostly in languages other than English. It’s more in the strength and quality of the programming and to make sure we don’t just have repeats of shows on SBS1, and more original acquired content from around the world.

One of the barriers for that is the cost of subtitling- it’s an issue for us. We can acquire the programming but if you can’t subtitle it, it limits its appeal.

What is then the identity of SBS2?

The best of international foreign language movies, documentaries and dramas.

And SBS3?

To be determined. We’re still in the works with it. At the moment we don’t have the ability, for technical reasons, to launch SBS3. but hopefully one of the outcomes of the re-stacking exercise will be the opportunity to launch a third channel and we’re thinking about what that might look like right now.

Tim Dick, opinion editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, recently said that ‘the original purpose of the SBS- to bring foreign language news to Australians otherwise unable to hear it- is now superfluous because of the internet’. What do you think of that view and what is SBS’s strategy to compete in a converged, digitised environment?

He’s entirely wrong. If those communities who are looking for information about their cultures in their languages only look offshore and they don’t find Australian media that reflects their concerns and their interests and even their language, the risk is that they could become isolated from Australian society and in fact, what you don’t want is to create what we call ‘digital ghettos’ where people don’t connect to Australian media, Australian democracy and debates.

The opposite is true- as migration continues to grow and as those technologies make it easier to get access to foreign information, you still need to get people connected. That’s a really vital role.

That sort of analysis misses the second job that SBS does: to help everyone, whatever your background is, connect with multiculturalism and cultural diversity. To understand Australian multiculturalism, appreciate foreign cultures, all of these things are becoming of increasing value in a globalised world. It’s a perspective on the world and on diversity but through Australian eyes- and that’s the big difference.

How are you going to maintain the SBS ethos while reshaping the structure to suit the changing industry?

The thing with SBS is that we’ve always been a niche player. We’ve always understood that we’re a small player and we have to stand for something in particular. So as the industry changes, as audiences fragment, as competition increases, if we can maintain our distinctive position in the market- nobody is going to be growing massively in terms of the number of eyeballs because there’s so much competition out there. The trick is to hold onto your position. Retain your audiences, hopefully grow them in some ways, but principally it is to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and we fortunately have a clear point of difference.

What is the role of local content amongst SBS’s programming?

We see it as critical. It’s a pity that the other networks don’t do that, but nonetheless we do. The other thing is that local content gives us the opportunity to make big, bold statements. Eg. First Australians which we broadcast last year not only met critical acclaim but got a lot of attention with audiences and with stakeholders like politicians. Drama series like East West 101 also really stand out as being different. And even something like Wilfred– which was recently attacked by the Herald Sun and defended by a whole lot of other people- it gets people talking about the network and it’s really important for us to make those sorts of statements about who we are and what we stand for.

What are the main challenges SBS faces in producing local content?

Cost is the main thing. Our strategy at the moment is that most of the original Australian content we commission will still be on SBS1. And while audiences of the multi-channels remain very small, it’s very difficult to justify putting a lot of investment into an original production. I’ve already indicated that we might do some in-language production for particular communities but the big issue is going to be cost.

After 2013 when digital penetration renders all the multi-channels ubiquitous, you’d hope that a number of broadcasters will look at the possibilities of original content on their channels. One of the things it does give you is the opportunity to do a bit of experimenting; the ABC does that with edgier comedies. Certainly that’s the experience of broadcasters like the BBC. While the channels are still in their infancy it’s a bit hard to justify their expenditure.

What kinds of local production can we expect in the future of SBS’s programming?

It’s about sticking to your knitting and doing what you’re well-known for. You’ll continue to see really high quality documentaries. We’ve announced that we’re looking at creating on the back of First Australians a series under the working title Second Australians, which is about the issue of immigration post 1788 and particularly non-Anglo Celtic immigration.

We’re still committed to making dramas and we have a number of dramas in the offing. And of course we’ll continue to try to look for some quirky slightly outlandish comedies.

The other thing of course is popular factual content like cooking, which is a good way of helping bridge cultural gaps by helping people understand diversity through things that are massive to their daily lives.

Should local content quotas apply to the commercial FTA digital multi-channels?

Whether they should be applied to individual channels, I don’t SBS has a particular view. We think it’s good for the industry that there are quotas in general- you need to maintain the level of activity and hopefully the level of quality. Exactly how that works I’m not sure.

-by Micah Chua

Tomorrow, part four of this series be an interview with the ABC’s director of television, Kim Dalton.


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