A Decade Of Transformation At SBS?

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When a new government takes office in Australia, it routinely discovers a "budget black hole" and loudly proclaims the incompetence of its predecessor.

Australians have rightly come to see this as humbug. Readers would be wise to regard Shaun Brown’s valedictory interview with Michael Bodey published in The Australian last week in the same way.

After eight and a half years in the job, even politicians are inclined to ease up on disparaging those who have gone before. Not so Brown. "When I arrived as head of television, I was pretty shocked at the state the television division was in, in terms of technology, capability and attitude," he told Bodey.

In January 2003 I wrote a paper for the SBS board arguing that Australia was on an indefinite journey of racial and cultural transformation and that the job of SBS Television should be to chart that journey. This meant a stronger emphasis in future on Australian-made television content, particularly documentaries and drama. The paper was endorsed with equal enthusiasm by the acting head of television Rod Webb and the incoming head Shaun Brown.

It put a policy framework around Australian content on SBS but was hardly revolutionary. Indeed it was building on directions already taking shape, thanks in large part to SBS’s highly regarded commissioning arm, SBS Independent. It is worth noting that First Australians and Remote Area Nurse, programs often associated with Brown, were underway before he arrived. All of this, and the eventual production during Brown’s tenure of groundbreaking programs such as East West 101 and Go Back To Where You Came From, should be seen as a continuum of ideas, imagination and strategy. There was no TV equivalent of the immaculate conception under Shaun Brown.

Look at any broadcaster at any time and you will find managers of varying capability. That was true of SBS in 2002 — and it is true of SBS in 2011. The key is how these people are managed and led to optimise their performance. SBS has a distinguished list of former heads of television, including Bruce Gyngell, Paddy Conroy, Andy Lloyd-James and Peter Cavanagh. Perhaps the difficulty of measuring up to these "legends" explains Brown’s impulse to denigrate.

Brown told Bodey: "Oh there was a faction within television, none of whom is there today, that held strongly to the view that SBS was there for an elite ABC-style audience." Personally, I do not recall any TV manager ever expressing that view. This is not to deny the reality that much of the SBS audience in prime time came from higher socio-economic groups; this has always been a selling point to advertisers, as no doubt it still is.

"Elite ABC-style" viewers and viewers from a non-English speaking background are not mutually exclusive, although it is a safe bet that the former did not feature strongly in the audiences for SBS’s World News Channel, a digital channel featuring in-language overseas news services which was created on the prevailing pittance before Brown arrived.

I am surprised that Brown is now saying he had a problem with the idea that SBS should be not be controlled by "the ethnics" (incidentally, not a term I recall ever being used by TV managers). The point is not "the ethnics", but the control. Editorial independence is the highest value of any publisher, and you don’t allow it to be compromised by outside interests. It seems an obvious principle, but it was a bigger issue for SBS than other broadcasters because SBS extensively covered current and historical conflicts and other issues contested by various Australian migrant communities. For people in these communities, the pull of the homeland is natural and understandable, but in some cases it manifests itself as stronger than their attachment to Australia and Australian values.

Brown inherited a TV division determined not to be suborned by lobby groups trying to influence its coverage of homeland events, but rather to cover those events as well as possible for a collective Australian audience. Perhaps this was lost in translation: it is no criticism of Brown to say that, having spent the previous 20-odd years in New Zealand, he had virtually no knowledge of Australian multiculturalism when he arrived.

Watching SBS, I usually struggle to see evidence of any quantum leap in management capability. In 2002 SBS broadcast the FIFA World Cup and was also showing Dateline, Inspector Rex and South Park. Ditto SBS in 2010. SBS was generously funded for conversion to digital, although not for content for its digital channels; so all too often on SBS2 you have the opportunity to again avoid programs you’ve already avoided at least once on SBS1.

Of course Brown would express the opposite view of management capability. Which makes it curious that in the Bodey piece, Brown made no mention of his current management team.

That said, it’s not a complete surprise. A few years ago exasperated TV managers were wont to say: "Better send him another instrument" — for his one man band. Brown did turn the position of managing director into a more powerful one, usurping the power previously exercised by the heads of television and radio. His ability to get his way was even greater because the SBS board was light on for actual knowledge of broadcasting.

So how does one seriously rate Brown’s performance between 2003 and 2011?

He drove through some significant efficiencies, although he was by no means the first person to do so. He rode the wave of improved taxpayer-funded financial and technical resources available to SBS. He more than trebled commercial revenue — although it is not clear how much of this went into the production of additional charter content as distinct from being consumed by an "own goal" of rising costs, nor how vulnerable SBS became to a failure to maintain the higher revenue levels. He does deserve praise for fulfilling earlier visions of more Australian drama on SBS, even if too many eggs from the revenue boom went into the basket of East West 101.

He was unfairly criticised over the Margaret and David defection to the ABC. They certainly had legitimate grievances that he should have addressed but they were also lured by a weird ABC which was prepared to steal a movie review program from a fellow public broadcaster while closing down Behind The News. Brown can take much of the credit for expanding SBS’s sports coverage — the Ashes, complementary coverage of the Olympics, extended coverage of the Tour de France — but still has to share it with Les Murray and Ken Shipp, who were already management stars in 2002.

Audience share seems to have improved, although figures for some costly and heavily promoted content were disappointing. Go Back To Where You Came From was an outstanding, "genuinely SBS" program that did find a large audience and represented a clever and inventive use of the reality TV format. On the other hand, the television news lost its distinctive place in Australian broadcasting when it focussed more on Australian stories, while the current affairs programs, with the exception of Living Black, became tired. The tawdry Friday night sex slot should have been dumped years ago.

And then there is Top Gear, an even more curious omission from the Bodey interview.

Until it was nicked by Nine, Top Gear would have contributed a large part of the increase in commercial revenue of which Brown is justifiably proud. Indeed, I think the Brown era can be identified with Top Gear more than any other program. But to me — and this is obviously a subjective judgement — Top Gear also symbolises the time when SBS went from being purposefully multicultural to being incidentally multicultural.

I suspect SBS took its cue from the Howard government’s loss of enthusiasm for multiculturalism; in any event the broadcaster adopted a pretty-much-anything-goes definition of the M word. The result was Top Gear Australia, the ultimate sign of confusion over what SBS was for.

As Michael Ebeid takes office as Managing Director, the settings for SBS Television are more propitious than they were in January 2003 when Shaun Brown became head of television or in 2005 when he ascended to the MD’s post. Ebeid, as far as I can tell, understands Australia’s immigrant and multicultural history. He is working with a Chairman, Joe Skrzynski, who is committed to SBS’s public good remit and who has the experience and authority that a chairman needs. And they are operating in a political context in which multiculturalism has found renewed favour. All the best to them, and may they be fair to the present management team.

In the meantime, how does one rate Shaun Brown’s performance in his time at SBS?

Three stars from me — which is more than he would get from Margaret or David.

 

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