Wednesday, October 11, 2006

SBS dancing with the devil

Australian public broadcaster SBS has made a major operating change this week. For the first time, advertising breaks will appear mid-program, rather than just before and after TV shows. The time limit is currently five minutes of advertising each hour and must occur in “natural breaks” in programs.

The change occurs because SBS were losing too many viewers in the long ad breaks that were scheduled between programs. Although there is no increase in the overall amount, the change will be more lucrative for the network. SBS says it generated $29 million in revenue, on top of the Federal Government's basic funding, last year When Shaun Brown, the broadcaster's managing director, announced the move in June, he said it would raise an extra $10 million in the first year, because ads in the middle of programs were more valuable.

SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) started test broadcasting in 1979 in Sydney as a foreign language service for that city’s multi-cultural population. It was based on the success of Radio stations 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne. These stations started in 1975 initially as a temporary service to explain government health services in various languages but they took off in their own. By the end of the decade the then Malcolm Fraser Liberal administration realised there was an audience for multi-language television and SBS was born. Throughout the eighties, it slowly expanded its reach out of Sydney and Melbourne and onto Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Newcastle. Because it was broadcast on the UHF frequency, it wasn’t easy to get reception and many regions received poor coverage. A plan to amalgamate SBS with the ABC, the other public broadcaster was turned down by the Hawke Labor government in 1987. By the early nineties it had established itself in all the Australian state capitals and many regional centres.

The network now gets on average about 3-5% of the nightly Australian TV audience. In 1991 it started to place advertisements. Since then, these ads have provided 15% of its funding from the five minutes an hour of advertising the network has been allowed. The advertising quotient was put in place under 1991 SBS Act and the law needs to be amended if they are to increase the overall amount of advertising on the station. In 1990, SBS started its long association with football when it broadcast its first World Cup from Italy. Its nightly flagship World News is another core offering.

British-born Shaun Brown was brought in from TVNZ to be the head of SBS television in January 2003. He redefined its goals, looking for a broader audience with more younger viewers and more women. Brown explained why: "If you break our audience into four, very broad parts - men over 50, men under 50, women over 50, women under 50 - since 2001, three of those blocks have been in decline. The only area that's been in growth is men over 50”. He dropped the introductions to movies citing the concept of presenters as "slightly old-fashioned". He wanted to move SBS away from its heavy factual content towards a “more balanced programming”. Critics saw this as dumbing down of the network and have alleged that foreign language movies, arts coverage and documentaries have been marginalised. Two of its highest profile presenters, film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton quit to go to the ABC in 2004. Pomeranz who had been a writer-producer for SBS since its inception, told the ABC why left the rival network: "All organisations go through change and SBS is heading in a new direction. As a passionate supporter of public broadcasting, I did not feel comfortable with this new direction”.

SBS has borrowed most of its new commercial break guidelines from the British media regulator Ofcom. The new guidelines defines a “natural break” in drama or comedy as follows:"(i) there is an obvious and dramatically significant lapse of time in the action, or (ii) there is a change of scene, with a significant break in the continuity of action." Whereas, a natural break for documentary or information program is: (i) a change f topic, (ii) a change of method or treatment, (iii) recorded inserts in live programs, or (iv) new participants in a discussion program are introduced. It also goes on to define natural breaks for entertainment, programs with prizes, music programs, news and current affairs, sport, outside broadcast, acquired programs and overseas broadcasts. For 30 minute programs, there will be 2 breaks and for 60 minute programs there will be three breaks.

Its another step on the long slippery road to full commercialisation. Expect SBS to lobby the government to increase the 5 minute an hour limit sometime after the next election.

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