25 Years of SBS TV


When SBS Television first went to air, on 24 October 1980, it was unique. No other television station in the world had the same purpose or policy as SBS. It had, from the outset, a clearly defined core audience of recent immigrants and longer-term residents from non-English speaking backgrounds, and a publicly declared goal of internationalising the largely Anglo-Australian middle class. This unique covenant resulted in some of the most innovative television programming in the world in the 1980s and 1990s. The original service provided by Australia’s second public broadcaster was very special indeed.

Recently, however, a series of shifts within policy and practice at SBS Television has steadily eroded the network’s claim to be a unique player in the media landscape. Some trace the decline of SBS’s distinctiveness to the introduction of advertising in 1991; others to the Howard Government’s program of cultural reform, often referred to as the ‘culture wars’. Still more believe the decline in SBS’s fortunes may be the inevitable result of increased competition in the provision of international media content via the advent of cable, digital television and the internet. More recently, the Head of Television, Shaun Brown, has come in for heavy criticism for ‘dumbing down’ the culture of SBS in the pursuit of increased ratings since his appointment in January 2003.

All these developments may have contributed to the erosion of SBS’s original purpose. However, in an era of rapidly advancing communication technology and globalisation, it would be naïve to insist that SBS must remain static, or to argue that the station should not change and grow with Australian society.

Before his rather abrupt departure from the organisation earlier this year, SBS Managing Director Nigel Milan acknowledged that ‘SBS has changed’, but denied that it had lost sight of its original purpose. In an open letter to The Australian late last year, Milan asserted that ‘SBS’s ultimate responsibility is to nation building: to show multicultural Australia to itself; to tell the stories of Australia in the languages of Australia, and to promote national unity through understanding and acceptance of cultural diversity.’

Many supporters believe that SBS is being slowly bled to death by a thousand cuts from a government-appointed board that has, in recent years, shown scant regard for the cultural policies that led to the establishment of SBS by the Fraser Government. With SBS increasingly resembling mainstream television, defenders of the network’s original purpose fear that the absorption of SBS into the ABC is more likely than ever. As Malcolm Fraser himself has warned: ‘Given half a reason, this Government will say œSBS has served its purpose , and save money by abolishing it.’

Despite the danger of doing so in a political environment which increasingly appears to value homogeneity above diversity, we must, after 25 years of State-sponsored multicultural television, ask the question: what future is there for a Special Broadcasting Service? Has the network achieved its original goal of entrenching cultural diversity as an integral part of the Australian culture, so that its ‘special’ service is no longer necessary in 21st century Australia?

In 2005, evidence abounds that SBS has had a significant impact on the way Australians see themselves. While mainstream media productions are still dominated by Anglo-Australian characters, proof of the acceptance of multiculturalism amongst Australia’s younger generations is coming from an unlikely source: commercial reality television. The four finalists in Channel 10’s first Australian Idol competition represented the truth of mainstream, multicultural Australia today: two females, one born here to Italian immigrants, and one who had emigrated herself from Fiji as a baby; and two males, one born in Malaysia, and the other a fourth generation NSW farmer. It’s hard to imagine an SBS Independent production executive dreaming up a more perfect representation of modern Australian life.

Anyone who imagines that such a shift in the popular understanding of what it is to be Australian could have occurred without SBS is ignoring the obvious generational gap between the culture of the young audiences of these programs, and their parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs. Australians under 30, who have grown up in the nation’s cities and major regional areas watching SBS television, are undoubtedly what Professor Andrew Jakubowicz has called ‘comfortable operating in a number of different cultures’. The sophisticated way in which young Australians are able to draw on a variety of cultural elements from around the world and incorporate these into their cultural identity as modern Australians is evidence that SBS has had a profound effect on the way Australians see themselves.

Yet herein lies the danger that SBS faces today. By acknowledging the success SBS has had in creating multicultural Australia, we are lending weight to the argument that its work has been done. And at a time when funds for public broadcasting are apparently tighter than ever before, amalgamation does, indeed, seem an obvious course of action. However, any financial gains made by abolishing SBS would be far outweighed by the nation’s cultural loss.

The onscreen content of SBS, the distinctive voice and rich cultural identity it has contributed to modern Australian society, must be preserved at all costs. Any future amalgamation of the two national broadcasters must be just that “ an amalgamation, not an acquisition.

The most obvious savings are to be made by combining the duties of the administrative and management staff in both organisations, while maintaining the distinctive and highly innovative work done by content producers and creative talent at SBS through the retention of a separate television channel.

SBS’s world-leading tradition of presenting challenging documentaries and current affairs coverage from a diverse range of international sources must be maintained and expanded in the digital age. The network’s commendable commitment to the production of Australian drama through SBS Independent, and its remarkable success both at home and internationally, is the obvious model by which to solve the current problems facing drama production at the ABC.

The onscreen presence of SBS is essential to the ongoing development of a modern and inclusive Australian identity. After 25 years, SBS Television might need rethinking, but Australia can’t afford to lose it. Some things can’t be reduced to dollars and cents.

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.