Saturday, February 21, 2009

Clutter's underbelly: SBS and advertising

I’m trying hard to enjoy the new second series of Underbelly on Channel Nine but am finding the number of ads are making it almost unwatchable. As a general rule, I avoid watching the free-to-air commercial channels live - their ad breaks are too destructive to the momentum of any program. So I pre-recorded Underbelly. But even then, I was annoyed by the number of times I had to fast-forward through the clutter of fifteen second ads. Ad buying in such numbers is huge business for broadcasters, but has the potential to destroy audience by over-saturation.

Advertisers themselves are aware of the problem. The dilemma is that few of them are prepared to pay premiums of up to 40 per cent to ensure fewer ads. Nine also admits there might be a problem but are hiding behind the early success of Underbelly’s 2.4 million audience. “We may need to take a position on the price of 15-second ads to reduce the clutter, “ Nine's network sales boss, Peter Wiltshire told the SMH. “But judging from Monday night's [ratings] performance, people are not too worried about it." The question, Peter, is whether 2.4 million will be still watching after another two or three weeks of this over-exposure.

Over at the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), the marketers are convinced high clutter ads are counter-productive. The state owned station has regulatory limitations on how much commercial airtime and claims this makes it attractive to advertisers. Last week they launched a trade press campaign called “avoid the clutter”. The campaign urges advertisers to switch to SBS because their commercial breaks are the shortest on Australian free-to-air (excepting ABC), and therefore, claims SBS, the advertisers will “get 83% better recall and an audience that’s 45% more engaged.”

The press release does not reveal where those percentages are sourced from, but it is a clever ploy to turn a necessity into a virtue. SBS has become a much savvier commercially-aware network under managing director CEO Shaun Brown. While his innovations since taking over in 2005 (most notably introducing in-program ads) have divided the station’s audiences, he has been steadfast in his desire to reposition the station. Under his leadership, ratings have become a critical measure of the station’s performance - though they remain stuck in the five to six percent region. Nevertheless, as his publicity manager Mike Field said of him, “Brown likes numbers”.

Brown first arrived at the station two years earlier as head of television. He told the authors of “The SBS Story” that when he started he found an organisation captive to the “Anglo arthouse” camp. He criticised the station’s focus on documentaries and foreign movies. “I’ve got no problems with any of those programs, but they are not exactly defining of our charter,” said Brown in the book. Instead he wants an emphasis on locally commissioned content and a shift away from international acquisitions to meet its charter obligations.

The problem is that a major point in the charter is the need to “contribute to meeting the communications needs of Australia's multicultural society.” Firstly with radio and then with television, SBS has become the key cultural institution for ethnic communities in Australia for the last 30 years. But while movies, documentaries and sport have long been core multicultural programming on SBS TV, that type of content has been threatened by the new delivery platforms of the 2000s. New competitors in the form of Pay TV, broadband Internet, DVDs and digital TV have led to a general decline in television viewing (particularly among the young).

SBS has responded in three ways; by programming more populist, imported English language shows (Mythbusters, Top Gear, South Park), enhancing the brand’s online presence, and most crucially, giving greater prominence to advertising. Brown defends these measures by saying the channel must become more relevant “for all Australians”. As he said in his speech to the Press Club in 2007 (attachment of speech opens in document format): “How can we be relevant, justify the public expenditure and meet our Charter obligations if only a fraction of Australians are tuning in?”

The question of public expenditure becomes relevant again later this year as SBS Triennial funding comes up for renewal. The review has re-opened SBS’s whole raison d’etre. A couple of years ago, Paul Sheehan ruffled feathers when he called the station “an indulgence we don’t need”. He said the international news, sport and entertainment pay TV channels didn’t exist when SBS TV was conceived in 1979. Sheehan said the Government could raise billions by selling SBS and its digital spectrum. “SBS is now standing in the way of quality,” he said.

Brown disagrees and argues the new SBS model creates quality content. He says the advertising revenue generated by programs such as Top Gear cross-subsidises innovative locally commissioned content. For him, commercialism enhances the station’s public service mandate. But there is a tension between the two that must be negotiated. SBS’s core principles of difference and diversity remain valid. In-program ads not only increase revenue but also allow for effective cross-promotion of other SBS programs. The problem is that the station may sacrifice its distinctiveness in the search for all-encompassing advertising revenue. Perhaps the clutter argument is an acknowledgement is that less is more for a public broadcaster.

Note: article cross-posted at my new Wordpress blog

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