It’s been a big month in the life of SBS Television.
The nation’s junior public broadcaster turned 25 on the 24th of October, got a new Managing Director on the 9th of November and, a week later, enjoyed its highest ever ratings with the broadcast of Australia’s World Cup-qualifying win against Uruguay. In more ways than one, SBS is at something of a crossroads.
It’s only fitting that the network’s all-time ratings triumph came from a football match. SBS has been Australia’s champion of football for more than two decades, and its broadcasts of the code known parochially as ‘soccer’ have always been amongst its best performing programs. With around 3.4 million people tuning in nationally for the nail-biting penalty shoot out that put Australia over the line last week, the total audience was comparable to that of this year’s AFL Grand Final, proving that the world game has finally come of age in Australia.
For SBS, accustomed to prime time ratings in the range of 3.5 “6 per cent, a 36.4 per cent audience share for the night beat the other networks soundly, and put even the 21 per cent share gained by this year’s Ashes decider in the shade.
This success can be seen to justify the SBS Board’s decision to award the Managing Directorship to former Head of Television Shaun Brown. Since coming on board in January 2003, Brown has overseen a shift in priorities at SBS that has seen the multicultural broadcaster compete for mainstream sporting fixtures, with a stunning rise in ratings as a result. For a board now made up almost entirely of media professionals from English-speaking backgrounds, this is perhaps the only worthwhile measure of success, and it’s hard to argue against the increased revenue such ratings will bring to SBS via its limited advertising sales.
But what of the cultural mandate of SBS, to promote multiculturalism and reflect the diversity of Australian society? Despite fears that SBS is facing the familiar spectre of amalgamation with the ABC, the junior public broadcaster actually enjoys widespread support on both sides of politics, and is unlikely to be abolished. The real danger is that SBS is being changed from within, by a board and management that comprise arguably the most highly qualified team SBS has ever had in terms of media experience, but who evince little passion for the network’s cultural responsibilities.
Previous Managing Director Nigel Milan left the job six months shy of the end of his contract, after what many believe to be a protracted battle with the SBS board over the tension between the pursuit of increased ratings and the network’s charter obligations. Former SBS icon Margaret Pomeranz expressed doubts about the stewardship of Milan’s replacement shortly after he came on board as Head of Television, saying that she didn’t think SBS was ‘Shaun’s kind of television.’ So should we be even more worried now that Brown has taken the reins as MD? Will he oversee a remodelling of SBS as the ‘Sports Broadcasting Service’?
It’s not likely. While The Ashes acquisition was difficult to reconcile with the SBS charter, the success of the football World Cup telecast next year actually reflects the best of SBS’s history, and represents the kind of SBS we should pursue for the 21st century. But, of course, its focus cannot be solely on sport.
The recent departure of Glenys Rowe, who, in her time as Head of SBS Independent (SBSi), commissioned some of the most culturally contemporary Australian film and television of recent years, is a blow to the network. It’s to be hoped that SBS will continue along SBSi’s recent path of producing content that reflects modern Australian culture in all its diversity. Indeed, with the revenue gained from high ratings sports broadcasts, it should be possible to expand production of the network’s innovative and original Australian drama and documentary.
Meanwhile, after 25 years of the kind of multiculturalism that SBS was established to foster, last week’s World Cup match showed that Australia is now firmly, and comfortably, a multicultural nation the team and its passionate supporters coming from every cultural group in Australia.
Announcing Brown’s appointment as MD on the 9th of November, SBS Chairman Carla Zampatti acknowledged that he would ‘ take up his new position at a critical point in SBS history, when our role in encouraging multicultural understanding and harmony has never been more important.’ Truer words were never spoken. When so many public voices in our nation are encouraging cultural division and fear, we need more of the kind of television that the World Cup qualifier represented, and which SBS has been bringing us for a quarter of a century.
As long as Shaun Brown understands that, then SBS should be with us for a long time yet.
Emma Dawson is a PhD Scholar in the communications program at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and was, until recently, a fellow at Melbourne-based public policy think tank OzProspect. She is New Matilda’s Media Policy Coordinator.
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