1 Apr 2010

Does SBS Have Any Friends Left?

By David Ingram
After years of downplaying SBS's multicultural credentials, managing director Shaun Brown now wants to be besties with the ethnic lobby. It might be too little, too late, writes David Ingram
Speaking at a recent symposium at Murdoch University entitled "Racism Revisited", SBS managing director Shaun Brown made a case for allocating more funds for multicultural broadcasting at Australia's second national network.

Many in the audience would have been a little taken aback. Was this the same Shaun Brown who, in his four years as MD, has downplayed the multicultural focus of SBS? The one who led the push to reinterpret the SBS Charter to elevate the concept of "all Australians" — and to relegate to a secondary role its multicultural responsibilities?

Brown's plea for more taxpayer funds for multicultural programs has been likened by some observers to the man who murdered both his parents then pleaded for mercy because he was an orphan. They see his latest flourish of the corporation's much-used begging bowl as disingenuous considering how deeply he has raided SBS's multicultural coffers — both financially and philosophically — to bring the network to its current sad state of affairs.

Brown told the Perth symposium that there was a continued need for SBS to "give a voice to different sectors of the community in our national debates and enable different voices and different languages and cultures, to be reflected back to all Australians".

Did this need ever go away? Critics of SBS would say no — and add that the broadcaster has not met it in recent years. So it was a shock to hear terms like "multicultural", "cultural diversity" and "linguistic skills" issue forth from the podium several times over, from the same man who not so long ago, when soliciting programming ideas from his entire staff, sent out a long memo which didn't use the word multiculturalism once.

Several days after this appearance, Brown recycled large chunks of the Murdoch University speech at the Australian Broadcasting Summit in Sydney, fleshing it out with responses by Indian Australians to an SBS survey about the recent attacks. Brown may be coming late to this argument that multiculturalism is a bastion against racism, but as usual he sounded plausible. He even added a mea culpa for past wrongs, admitting SBS was "falling short on serving our 'multilingual' objectives — across all our platforms".

Perhaps he felt safe telling all to an audience dominated by industry suits who wouldn't hold the past against him that: "We significantly under-serve major or growing language communities. At the same time we do little or nothing for new, high need language groups. And, we continue to largely serve our language communities on analogue radio when our audiences are increasingly turning to online services.

"This is clearly unacceptable for a modern media organisation with a remit like SBS's."

As if to confirm his apparent change of heart, Brown sent an email to all staff, ostensibly to update them on a mid-term review of the SBS Corporate Plan, but which also stressed the importance of multiculturalism.

"We must provide more services for language and cultural communities as well as more content that will appeal to a broad cross section of Australian society," he wrote.

"SBS must try to deepen the engagement of Australians with content that specifically promotes the maintenance of a successful multicultural society."

Brown's critics would have been heartened to hear him champion multicultural programming in such exultant terms — were it not for the fact that they no longer trust him.

His history of stripping funding from multicultural programming — especially from multilingual SBS Radio — to pursue a more mainstream television agenda exposes the hollowness of his new strategy.

Only now, after four years at the helm, with advertising scarce and audience share at a historic low, does Brown return to SBS's ideological roots to try to convince Australians — and through us the Government — that SBS deserves more money.

It would not be hard to see this as a cynical move after all other strategies have failed. And perhaps both public speeches were partly prompted by continued attacks on the SBS. The most recent was a call by Tim Dick, Opinion Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, for SBS to be closed and its funding spent on independent journalism. It may have been provocative and ill-informed, but it would still have caused more shudders to run through SBS's Artarmon headquarters.

So what evidence is there that Brown has really changed his thinking beyond mere rhetoric?

Certainly SBS's announcement of a new arts channel it will sell to Foxtel and Austar wouldn't justify much confidence. Even at this early stage of its existence, Stvdio (pronounced "studio") appears to be mainly a collection of overseas arts programs bought cheaply and bundled to make them seem thematic. And Stvdio's admittedly sparse website manages to spruik its attractions without once mentioning words like "multicultural".

Perhaps news of Brown's conversion hasn't filtered down to the Stvdio planners or maybe they don't think either the new channel or Brown's conversion to multiculturalism will last beyond the current round of funding applications to the Federal Government.

There is, of course, an outside chance that the longed-for reformation of SBS is actually at hand, that the new Chairman of the Board, Polish-born financier Joseph Skrzynski, is made of different stuff to his predecessor, fashion designer Carla Zampatti.

Zampatti never managed to get much in the way of additional funding from the previous government despite her close friendship with John Howard — and in fact some said because of it.

Perhaps Skrzynski might fare better with the Rudd Government, especially with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy who is currently in desperate need of friends.

And perhaps the SBS Board's apparent new interest in multiculturalism is real. Perhaps Skrzynski, despite his rather meagre multicultural credentials, actually believes it is still important to Australia and to SBS.

If that is so, he'll have a tough row to hoe with the hardline Howard-appointees still on the Board, most of whom were complicit in the corporation's poor performance.

He'll also need to convince SBS's critics — who are mainly its one-time friends — that the corporation is genuine in this new direction. And he can't do that without a practical demonstration and some radical changes at the top.

Skrzynski comes from the commercial world where failure is punished quickly, surgically and with extreme prejudice. It is hard to imagine the boards of BHP or Westpac allowing management failures of the magnitude witnessed at SBS — falling market share, declining real-terms revenue, lost public confidence and low staff morale — to continue without censure.

Brown is in a powerful position; he is paid more than the Prime Minister and all but one of the corporation's nine most senior executives owe their appointments directly to him.

The question is whether Skrzynski has the nerve to wield the knife.

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Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 14:40

Dear David,

You seem to forget that there never was a "golden past" at SBS TV... The place has been plagued by political scandal...bias, ethnic favouritism etc... What we need is a Senate Inquiry or a Royal Commission into SBS TV....

check out my story:

Do we really need SBS?

By Sasha Uzunov

Does Australia really need to be serviced by two public broadcasters? Sasha Uzunov investigates the audience of SBS, 25 years on:

Date: 9 June 2005

The ABC's Chairman Donald Macdonald recently gave an elegant speech at the National Press Club in Canberra about where the public broadcaster was heading. Afterwards, as he fielded questions, reporters once again honed in on the thorny issue of whether the second public broadcaster, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), should exist.

read on....

Sasha Uzunov
freelance photo journalist /
independent film maker

Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 15:36

While Sasha is pushing his barrow I will do the same but declare my vested interest. I am English, I emigrated to Australia more than 20 years ago, I have lived more years in Oz than the UK and consider Australia to be my home. I am though like a lot immigrants influenced by my past and whilst I am white Anglo we English are culturally different to Aussies. I watch SBS for many different reasons, movies, docos, news service and of course the soccer and herein is where my problems start.

There is a massive cultural difference in the expression of football from country to country, it brings out the passion in people and these passions come to the surface in emotional moments, for the English some times unsavory. The SBS and Les Murray have for many a year slammed the British game, rightly or wrongly. I tend to agree with some of the observations, but what concerns me is the lack of any journalistic balance. Tax dollars pay these guys wages and their opinions should be balanced, and in Craig Foster Mr Murray is grooming the next anti British football influence to the SBS. I use this as an example germane to the general issue Sasha raises above and the political mire that is the SBS, if Mr Murray has been ploughing his own agenda in what is a trivial field, what is going on elsewhere in the SBS? BTW Football is the SBS's single biggest budget item so maybe it is not so trivial.

With greater access through pay TV, the Socceroos World Cup qualification, the A-League football, integration with the Asian Federation, Football has becoming a recognised main stream sport in Australia, worrying the more traditional football codes, but because SBS does not get any slice of this cake any longer, it cannot pay the $$ Foxtel or the commercials pay it snipes at the domestic game & quality and it snipes at officialdom and so on.

The SBS has become a mess, and I would like it to remain but in some other form, with maybe a managerial clear out?

Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 16:18

Thanks for the very informative article David.

I am like many other English speaking Australians who's parents came out here in the 50's & fail to see the relevance of 'Multiculturalism' in the sale sense, that it is being thrown at the Australian public. For too long now, it has been used as a money spinning ploy for eroding our very own culture, in order to adopt many other countries. Most will watch the documentary's, sports & news but very few, other than those that speak a specific language, will watch the news programs in foreign language's. In fact it is annoying when there is nothing on any channel worth watching & I can only complain as to why SBS don't have a documentary showing the country's lifestyle, wildlife & customs & leave the news to the 6:30pm time slot.

This reduces the networks chances to gain willing advertising sponsorship & any immigrant that comes to this country, or goes to another country, should learn to speak the language. The sales pitch of the 'Multiculturalism' bit has given many foreigners the wrong impression about Australian ideals & an example of that was when Mave O'Meara (sorry if the spelling is wrong) hosted an Italian cooking special on SBS, where the Italian person quoted; "Everybody here likes Italian food so much, they all want to be Italian".

For any Italian's that think that way, the news is, I love Italian food but I don't like the Berlusconi, Pope driven culture & that's why our culture is different to yours.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. djm
Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 17:03

My wife and I were avid SBS watchers around 10 years ago. They were great then: ad-free (at least within programs), frequently playing international art-house and cult movies, retaining a great news team led by Mary Kostakidis and many other interesting local and international shows. No so now; advertising is pervasive and almost as obnoxious as the commercial stations, the news has been debased and sensationalised, they seldom play interesting films and many of their quirky or excellent local talent have fled (Mary Kostakidis, Margaret Pomeranz, David Stratton) or been let go (Des Mangan).

Sure, organisations and their cultures change but there doesn't seem to be any upside for the lovers of the SBS of old, and precious little to woo new viewers either. The only thing that I can say has definitely improved in the last 10 years is the resolution of their broadcast, since they now offer a HD service. I'd happily trade that for the quirky, more multicultural and proudly intellectual SBS of old. I guess the Howard appointees succeeded in their task...

Posted Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 21:23

Interesting altogether.
I watch SBS routinely, simply because it is better than the alternatives most of the time. Too many cooking programmes, but then, they are ubiquitous. I guess it could also be argued that food in all its guises is a trans-cultural and universal topic of interest !

Too much Mediterranean influence altogether and particularly around the 6-8pm slot; if I see one more `Mama`s pasta sauce` moment... but then Kosta`s Garden is a really fresh and interesting spot. He gets around all sorts of different people and places, and is a level above the usual lifestyle/garden affair, I believe.

The news, yes SBS peddles the same tired superficialities as the other channels in the main. In fairness they do cover places and events not shown elsewhere occasionally, and the English-language overseas news service is a good thing. Oh, for some honest, critical TV journalism about Iraq and Afghanistan, or the idiotic illegal drug situation here, or the net-censorship issue - which seems to be censored :) and so on.

I read (in NM perhaps), that SBS had been instructed by The Minister, not to use the term `Occupied Palestinian Territories`in their reports; so they don`t. This type of thing undermines my faith in TV news altogether - they all show the same half-dozen stories, the same media-driven sensations, the same lack of critical analysis.
On the News, what about the ABC`s Breakfast programme ?
Yuk - horrible, aggro/dismissive reporting and commenting on stories, just really brash. The woman is the worst, the bloke not much better - they appear to be trying out for a commercial spot ASAP. The sports presenter is OK !

SBS is still the only place for plenty of interesting movies from all over the world and the same goes for specials on music and art, festivals and events. The Eagle series, Unit One and currently The Killing from Scandinavia, just brilliant. They`ve got the best comedy series usually the Conchords et al, in fact there`s a lot of Kiwi stuff at the moment which I enjoy.

Problems yes, but SBS still makes most alternate TV seem like cold porridge.
Some teeth for news and current affairs, some funding for more diverse input and content and it would be better.

Posted Friday, April 2, 2010 - 12:36

I was at the Racism Revisited conference where Shaun Brown gave the speech in question - and I realise this is not the main point of the article, but I'm as sure as sure can be that it was in Perth, rather than Melbourne. I remember a really really long flight (from Canberra), and having to re-set my watch, and the sun setting over the Indian Ocean, and everything. Or has Murdoch university packed up and moved east?
There are now many other options besides SBS for accessing content in LOTE, world news and commentary, etc. Screening movies in LOTE is not really about providing "ethnic" viewers with entertainment in their "own" languages anymore, because they've probably seen the movie on DVD long before SBS screens it. But it is useful for such content to be treated as part of a shared cultural framework, not a niche market (hence SBS). And while you can source world news over the net or via payTV, SBS is still the best place to go for three-dimensional coverage of multiculturalism in Australia...

Posted Friday, April 2, 2010 - 12:38

...which is not to say that there isn't "room for improvement". Here's hoping...

Posted Friday, April 2, 2010 - 14:54

My apologies, Shakira and all those at Murdoch Uni. I shall move it back to Perth straight away.
On the issue of multicultural content, of course there has always been tension within and around SBS between those who saw it as a forum for Australians of diverse backgrounds (including Anglo) to share experiences and those who saw it as a way of accessing diverse materials from around the world. Both had some validity, but to junk the former seems to many of its friends retrogressive, especially as many Australians of NESB still need the kind of services only SBS can provide of the major media, including information, entertainment, validation and as an active bulwark against racism. Community and ethnic media do sterling work but they don’t have the resources or reach of SBS.
None of my articles have argued against the continued existence of SBS, either independently or in partnership with the ABC, just that it needs to do its job better and is running out of time and friends in an increasingly diverse, fragmenting and market-oriented communications world.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. marnic
Posted Friday, April 9, 2010 - 18:05

An editorial note for interested readers: David Ingram’s claim that audience reach at SBS recently reached an “historic low” is based on the <a href="http://www.oztam.com.au/documents/2010/C2_20100221.pdf" target="_blank"> OzTam 2010 Viewer Survey for February</a>, as referred to in his previous article for New Matilda, <a href=" http://newmatilda.com/2010/03/16/not-happy-network" target="_blank"> Not Happy At The Network</a>.

Apologies for not adding that source at the time of publishing.

Marni (Editor)

Posted Monday, April 12, 2010 - 11:29

SBS also has (had?) a world reputation for the clever and coloquial dubbing of English titles onto world movies. Has THIS been cut to the bone too?

Personally I don't watch TV much at all anymore. ANY channel.