Ashes to Ashes


Well, The Ashes series is over and, to declare my hand, I am, as an English-born Australian, delighted with the result, exhausted from too much late night excitement and just a little bit in love with Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff.

Meanwhile, at the Special Broadcasting Service, ratings have gone through the roof, promotions for regular programming have reached new audiences, advertising revenue has reportedly swelled the coffers to a previously unimagined girth, and Managing Director Nigel Milan has departed the organisation with a CV boasting the sort of ratings and revenue figures he could only dream about for most of his eight year tenure.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

The Ashes is the one remaining sporting competition in which I cheer for the old country, largely due to family pressure. So I’m glad, from both personal and cultural points of view, that this year’s Ashes series, during which my poor, long-suffering family finally found some new heroes to cheer for, was on free-to-air TV. Whoever it was at Channel 9 who decided this year’s Ashes broadcast rights wouldn’t be worth acquiring must be kicking themselves after what has been widely hailed as the best Ashes series ever.

Having said this, I’ve been open, both in this magazine and in other media, about my belief that SBS was not the place for The Ashes. And despite the temporary ratings triumph and associated advertising revenue boon that has resulted from SBS’s broadcast, I remain unconvinced that the 2005 Ashes has brought any real long-term benefit to SBS as a culturally mandated public broadcaster.

Let’s look at the arguments bandied about recently to justify the displacement of more than 35 hours of prime-time cultural programming onto SBS’s national TV network.

Firstly, and most credibly, is the contention that, by attracting a slew of new viewers to SBS during prime time, the network was afforded an unprecedented opportunity to promote its regular programming to a previously recalcitrant section of the Australian television audience. When announcing SBS’s successful bid for The Ashes series, Nigel Milan was careful to stress this point.

Certainly, the SBS promotions department has been working overtime to prepare and screen a raft of new promo spots for SBS’s flagship programs such as George Negus’s excellent Dateline, and the unique current affairs talk show Insight with Jenny Brockie. Promotions for less mainstream fare, such as the ‘musical documentary’ Drinking for Britain and a range of other challenging documentaries, have also been thrown into the mix.

However, not much advertising revenue was sacrificed to promote programs in languages other than English or those primarily concerned with the issues of multiculturalism and cultural identity. This shouldn’t be a surprise. For a start, the audience for The Ashes was highly unlikely to speak a language other than English, or to be hugely concerned with the broadcaster’s multicultural mandate – if they were, they’d surely have discovered SBS without the attraction of Ricky Ponting’s boys. Furthermore, SBS’s shift away from multicultural and multilingual programming has been underway for some time.

The most strident cries of victory for SBS, if not the previously indomitable Australian cricket team, have centred on the extraordinary ratings figures provided by the Australian cricket audience to the nation’s tiniest and least-watched broadcaster. At times during the telecast, SBS was watched by more than five times its usual prime-time audience, and this alone has been seen as an unarguable justification for the decision to broadcast the series.

However, any flow-on of Ashes ratings to regular programming has yet to be proven. In the days between tests, SBS’s figures reverted to its usual 3-5 per cent. Whether a longer-term increase in ratings eventuates, at least for those flagship programs so heavily promoted during The Ashes series, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, ratings figures for atypical programming such as The Ashes have only one direct and easily measured benefit: generating advertising revenue. There have been mutterings from those in charge at SBS that could be interpreted as a willingness to abandon the ideals of public broadcasting in the pursuit of ratings. And the enhanced advertising revenues brought in by The Ashes are clearly at least part of the impetus for such mutterings.

As, unlike the ABC, SBS is allowed to carry advertising during ‘natural breaks in programming’, the network has been able to program many more advertisements than it usually carries in an evening of prime-time television, and at a higher slot price than usual. Total revenue figures are jealously guarded, but best estimates put SBS’s profits, after the $1.5 million reportedly paid for the broadcast rights to The Ashes, at anywhere up to $2 million – not bad for a network that is used to getting by on a fraction of the budget of even the under-funded ABC.

The key question here is: what will that money be used for? If it’s going to be given to SBS Independent to commission more innovative Australian drama, all well and good. If it’s to be used to prop up Kerry Packer’s bid for the next free-to-air television rights for the AFL, as is strongly rumoured, then the worst fears of those who decried the decision to broadcast The Ashes will be realised.

This is the point that those commentators who celebrate The Ashes broadcast merely in terms of its ratings and revenue success seem to miss. What purpose, what cultural or social goal, does such success fulfil? SBS is not, despite the impression given by the make-up of its present board and senior television management team, a commercial broadcaster. It has no shareholders and is a non-profit organisation primarily funded by the government, ostensibly to provide programming that reflects Australian multicultural policy.

Ratings might give an indication of increased audience figures, but if those audiences are watching programs that are indistinguishable from those on commercial television or the ABC, or, worse, the rejected third-tier programming of Australian commercial television, so what?

If SBS has nothing special to offer anymore, then it’s not a ‘special broadcasting service’ at all, and its ongoing public funding will inevitably come under attack, most likely from those same misguided commentators who have been calling for an end to multiculturalism altogether since the attacks on the London Underground on July 7.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Those people, both inside and outside SBS, who see increased ratings from a game of cricket between Australia and the mother-country, as it was known in the days before multiculturalism brought our society kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, as a blessing to SBS display a woeful lack of understanding of the broadcaster’s position and role in the Australian media landscape. The dilution of the ‘special’ in the Special Broadcasting Service will eventually negate its role as a culturally mandated public broadcaster, and leave it vulnerable to accusations of irrelevance and the threat of amalgamation with the ABC.

To be fair, SBS’s recently departed Managing Director seems to have fought a long and bitter battle with the new-look, Howard Government-appointed board over the charter obligations of the multicultural broadcaster, and was well aware of the inconsistency between this year’s triumphal declaration of The Ashes broadcast and the charter he originally signed up to serve.

In 2001, Nigel Milan declared to the Australian Senate that he had decided his network would not bid for the last Ashes series because ‘I’d rather be a gold medal choice for those Australians that don’t speak English and come from the majority of countries in the world that don’t play cricket, than be a silver medal choice for a group of folk which I’m not chartered to serve’.

This year, Milan was forced to defend a complete about-face, and did so with grace and creativity. But perhaps the hypocrisy of working for an organisation that forced him to talk the public broadcasting talk while walking a decidedly commercial walk was ultimately too much for the amiable and well-intentioned Milan, who walked away from his role with only five months left to serve on a miserly and churlishly-granted one-year extension of his contract.

Milan leaves SBS with strong ratings figures in place, in accordance with government and board wishes. But the board and management he leaves behind display little comprehension of, let alone commitment to, SBS as anything ‘special’ at all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.