21 Apr 2011

Can This Man Save SBS?

By David Ingram
Michael Ebeid has his work cut out for him at SBS. David Ingram on the challenges facing the new managing director of Australia's multicultural broadcaster

Egyptian-born, Australian-raised Michael Ebeid is such a cleanskin he's almost translucent. Of course, many people rise to senior public jobs out of left field, but there's usually a trail of some sort. With Ebeid there's not much.

Even a well-connected former Board member of the ABC, where Ebeid is currently Director of Corporate Strategy and Marketing, admits to knowing "nothing about him". According to this source, Ebeid hasn't exactly left a trail of achievements in three years — but acknowledges that achievements in Ebeid's area of responsibility often don't have a public profile.

So who is Michael Ebeid and what does his appointment to the top job in Australia's second national public broadcaster portend?

Most observers agree he seems a nice enough bloke. He is variously described as intelligent, smart, articulate, personable, consultative and approachable. In fact everything you'd want in a good friend or a boss. And he's young, tech-savvy and the first MD to enter SBS with his own Twitter account.

But is all that enough to haul the once-admired SBS back from the brink of irrelevance? Is he sufficiently driven, tough and experienced for the task?

Certainly he is probably the least qualified managing director for many years in terms of professional journalism or program experience, two qualities by which SBS has always defined itself.

Although the first managing director, R.E. Fowell, came from commercial radio, his successor Ron Brown was a professional public servant — but both in their way suited the times. Between Fowell's appointment in 1978 and Ron Brown's departure in 1987, SBS functioned as a start-up public service broadcaster, beginning with a multilingual radio service then adding a fledgling television station.

But the next four MDs all had varying degrees of experience in broadcasting and/or journalism. Hawke appointee Brian Johns had been a journalist and book publisher. Malcolm Long was Deputy Managing Director of the ABC. Nigel Milan had a long and generally successful career in broadcasting including the Australian Radio Network and Radio New Zealand. The current MD Shaun Brown was a journalist and TV executive from New Zealand.

The fact that Ebeid has no practical experience in radio, television or news production — SBS Chairman Joseph Skrzynski had to argue that Ebeid had managed media-related functions at Optus and the ABC — has many people inside and outside SBS worried. But then again, Shaun Brown had oodles of experience and is leaving the national broadcaster in a perilous and parlous state.

Ebeid has going for him five important factors.

Number one, he is the first managing director in the multicultural broadcaster's 33-year history with a bona fide non-English speaking background. He may not be any better known in multicultural Australia than in the world of broadcasting, but he will intuitively understand the complexities of cultural and linguistic diversity. This fact alone will let him honeymoon for at least six months safe from criticism that he's another "Anglo" telling "ethnics" what to do and what to watch.

He will also have Skrzynski's full support. Although Crikey commentator Margaret Simons says Sky News CEO Angelos Frangopolous was the Board's first choice, Ebeid's actually the kind of bright, articulate, second-generation NESB Australian Skrzynski and younger SBS supporters have been looking for.

Given Skrzynski's apparent desire for SBS to return closer to its multicultural roots after straying under the Board headed by Carla Zampatti, and given the current attempt by the new Chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia Pino Migliorino — who is Ebeid's generation — to kickstart a defence of multiculturalism, there might be enough chemistry to create a spark.

The second thing going for Ebeid is that he will have political support in Canberra. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy obviously backs Ebeid's appointment and it has been suggested that Ebeid will be in sympathy with the Labor Government.

Thirdly, Ebeid claims a good track record in financial management, having increased the revenue of Optus's Consumer and Multimedia division from $560 million to $1.8 billion in four years. Skrzynski is a financier by trade and SBS needs a boost in revenue.

Ebeid's fourth positive is, perversely, that he doesn't have a significant background in broadcasting or news. Not only can he distinguish himself from Shaun Brown as more qualified in other ways, he will actually need to attract talent to fill the gaps and to support him, especially in his role as editor-in-chief.

Brown is leaving behind him a weak senior management team, almost all of them his appointees as Head of Television and then as MD (not one of whom was considered worthy to replace him). Under Brown — who likes control and dislikes dissent — SBS lost decades of experienced professionals some of whom were replaced by managers on the edge of their competence. When the veteran Head of Radio, Quang Luu, left six months after Brown became MD, a Senate Estimates committee was told his replacement, Paula Masselos, was insufficiently experienced. She was allowed to run out the final months of her contract at home.

Ebeid's first task — and the first indicator of how well he will perform — should be to drastically re-engineer management at the broadcaster. He is allegedly not a man inclined to slash-and-burn, but unless he asserts his presence immediately with dismissals, more rigorous performance management and some clever new appointments, hope for reform will be dashed.

For this is no ordinary succession, no simple passing of the baton. Despite management protestations otherwise and claims in 2009 that SBS TV had lifted its annual evening audience by 22 per cent, the fact remains its audience share still wallows in the single digits. That 22 per cent reflected a rise in audience share of just 1 per cent over five years — and left SBS still well behind the other networks. Until relatively recently it had not seen a significant increase in its base funding for several years and is now $3 million in debt. It has lost a swag of on-screen talent, advertising revenue is below target  and its profile has seldom been lower.

In 2009 SBS management asked staff for feedback on their performance and got a resounding thumbs down in several areas. Brown put in place reforms and recently polled staff again. While the results have been kept under lock and key this time to prevent further negative publicity — always hypocritical in a news organisation — SBS management does not seem to have made much headway in major areas. When 180 radio staff were asked why only half of them had filled in the new questionnaires, managers were told in no uncertain terms that many people could not be bothered because they saw no signs of improvement.

Taken on their own, these might be seen as a measure of how difficult it is for a broadcaster such as SBS to thrive with specific public obligations and limited resources. But given that the Zampatti board removed almost all constraints on ratings and revenue raising by reinterpreting the Charter to make it almost as broad as the ABC's, allowing in-program advertising, slashing costs and outsourcing major functions, the lack of significant success is damning.

And this is Ebeid's fifth strength — he is not Shaun Brown.

Whatever Ebeid's qualities and experience — or lack of it — he has the dubious freedom to try almost anything knowing he can't do much more harm.

There is even renewed talk of a merger with the ABC, though for the SBS Board to appoint someone like Ebeid from the ABC would be a decidedly odd way of achieving that — or even of signalling an openness to the idea. If SBS were going to merge, they would presumably want someone other than a former ABC executive as MD in order to protect their interests during negotiations.

While we may see greater cooperation in back-office functions such as human resources, finance, studio operations and engineering beyond what is already being done or envisaged by people such as the ABC's Mark Scott, any closer co-operation in areas of program production and commissioning, radio and news and current affairs would effectively be a merger anyway and Australia might not yet be ready for such a step.

Ironically, the more successful Ebeid is the further away that vision will recede.

One of the reasons SBS radio broadcasters are now generally in favour of a merger after opposing it for decades is they think that they will survive under the ABC — and that their managers will not. Whether the wider community — especially ethnic Australia — is ready for a merger is another issue that will probably not have to exercise Ebeid's mind in his first few months.

His first job is to get the SBS train back on the tracks before he starts thinking about repainting the livery.


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Posted Thursday, April 21, 2011 - 15:55

A good solid picture of SBS. Sad really, especially since my view of FTA TV is that save 'the big bang theory' if it's not on SBS or ABC then it's unlikely to be worth watching.

examinator ant

Posted Thursday, April 21, 2011 - 15:58

Let's hope the new MD can see that introducing in-program advertising has been a huge turn-off for many regular viewers, the evidence lies in the static or even falling advertising revenue levels.
A return to the earlier format would be most welcome!

David Grayling
Posted Thursday, April 21, 2011 - 18:14

On my television remote, the mute button is the most used.

I refuse to accept the fact that because I turn on the television I should be constantly badgered by mindless advertising. Sure the commercial channels are worse but SBS and the ABC are moving in that direction.

I wonder what the effect is on the minds of people who watch programs and advertisements without interruption, whether it affects their attention span and I.Q.

Use your remote and the mute button. Don't let the unwanted gremlins get into your head!


Anonymous (not verified)
Posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - 00:55

"Number one, he is the first managing director in the multicultural broadcaster’s 33-year history with a bona fide non-English speaking background. He may not be any better known in multicultural Australia than in the world of broadcasting, but he will intuitively understand the complexities of cultural and linguistic diversity. This fact alone will let him honeymoon for at least six months safe from criticism that he’s another "Anglo" telling "ethnics" what to do and what to watch."

Sounds very multi-cultural, all cultures as long as it's not Anglo. Tolerance and diversity eh ? Ya gotta love it...

Posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - 06:12

I agree with what Michael_Wilbur-Ham and David Grayling said about the aesthetics of the new SBS.

Lately, I've seen some highly interesting shows on SBS lately but who shat on SBS News? The dumbing down of its news has turned me right off. Watching SBS News begin to march in lockstep with the other stations over the past several years has made me turn away in shame. Now, I go to the blogs or watch Al-Jazeera on TVS rather than see my once favourite station turn into everybody else spouting mainstream media lite.

Posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - 08:09

Dear David,

you write:

"But is all that enough to haul the once-admired SBS back from the brink of irrelevance? Is he sufficiently driven, tough and experienced for the task?"

And in previous articles on SBS you make the same point... The reality is there never was a "golden age" at SBS. It was politically compromised from the start in 1980.

The answer is a Royal Commission of Inquiry or a thorough Senate Inquiry into the activities of SBS. Perhaps you would be willing to testify under oath as to what you saw and heard at the multicultural broadcaster. Im sure the taxpayer who paid your salary would be interested in your testimony. Rather than just hearing your woods, maybe action on your part is needed.

Im surprised to learn that you were at SBS for 13 years, yet you don’t mention the unfair treatment of the hugely popular and well respected reporter Vladimir Lusic removed from SBS TV under political pressure….in 1990.

Plus the whole heap of other scandals rattling inside SBS’s closet; the way it plays ethnic favourites, that is how it caves in under pressure etc etc.

kindest regards

Sasha Uzunov
freelance photo journalist

Do we really need SBS?

Posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - 11:00

Sasha et al.
Short answer YES

I would suggest that a more interesting question could be fielded if we modified and turned around your question.

Do we really NEED the commercial channels the way they are?
i.e. with their race to the bottom, LOWEST common Denominator (LCD).

A corollary question should be do we need our National Broadcasters to try to be a 5th sheet carbon copy of the commercial "elephant's on roller skates" in the same race to the (LCD) bottom? For me the short answer is, NO.

Then what DO we NEED?
- Firstly at least one channel dedicated to the interests of our major non English language group, with regular news etc in as many of the other groups languages as manageable.
The budget for this channel should be beyond government political manipulation.
Over all, mass viewing figures should be irrelevant.If they want viewing figures they should be predicated on each group's viewing only.
- All public funded media should be beyond party Government intervention
- Appointed board member should be competent not just *politically* appropriate.

When all is said and done SBS was and should be a service of information and inclusion the Language groups who are Australian too.

Posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - 12:04

I agree with Fostermann Michael_Wilbur-Ham and David Grayling and just about everyone else. I loathe the commercialism. I am annoyed and astonished at the number of 'made in the USA' programs... the commercial channels are 90% USA, we don't need more from that benighted land. I'm a fan of European and Middle Eastern movies, but am irritated that 90% of the movies are repeats, and the only time we get a new one on SBS 1, it's in the same time slot as the equally rare new one on SBS2! I still applaud their screening of programmes that other channels won't handle, such as the Two men out to save the world, and European exposes of political perfidy by our inglorious allies. The News really is awful. I watch the French, Spanish and Dutch News, and and very grateful that SBS broadcasts them. Perhaps SBS could ask to just copy their broadcasts with voiceovers - that would raise the standard, especially of explanatory graphics, and avoid the interminable verbosity and over lengthy 'interviews.

Posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - 16:41

(After reading Elbert's comment I should make it clear that in my earlier comment I was referring to SBS World News in English.)

Posted Saturday, April 23, 2011 - 13:56

Mike>>I watch several hour of SBS (and ABC) every day, yet I loath and detest the management practices of both stations. <<

I have a different approach. When TV annoys me, I switch it off. Currently I switch it on for about half an hour every two weeks. Bliss...

Anonymous (not verified)
Posted Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - 00:05

(This comment has been deleted)

Posted Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - 08:33

Paul N

You're the one who makes the differentiation not me.
In WW2 the cultural Japanese speaking Americans were invaluable as listeners to the enemy's communications. They also formed the most decorated units in their army.
The cultural (indigenous Americans) were able to foil the Japanese who listened into the US comms. They too as a group were highly decorated.
Even the Aussie Aborigines fought in both WW1&2, they too were used to confuse the Japanese listeners.
My Point NEITHER ETHNICITY OR LANGUAGE determines a persons nationality nor does it determine their rights or inclusion.
Assimilation is sooooo 1950's . Today is 2011