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SBS is ignoring its original charter

By Peter van Vliet - posted Monday, 24 September 2007

Up to 20 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home so it made sense  when Malcolm Fraser, in 1980, created a fifth television channel to cater for Australia’s large migrant population. Australia’s six and a half million post war migrants helped bring about Australia’s great wealth and prosperity so it seemed only fair that in return they would get a television station to cater for and reflect their cultural and linguistic diversity.

The SBS legislative charter states that SBS must provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television for all Australians. Five of the eight legislative requirements around that charter relate to multiculturalism, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity. But how times have changed.

This month SBS has released a corporate plan (2007-2012) which has four goals and 12 objectives. Not one single goal or objective relates to strengthening its key multicultural, culturally diverse or multilingual broadcasting role. The only goal vaguely relevant to its multicultural and multilingual charter talks only of “maintaining levels” of current programming and focuses heavily on making SBS relevant to “all” Australians. This is code for increased commercialism and increased programming directed towards Australians from non-migrant backgrounds.


The process of moving SBS television from a multicultural broadcaster to a broadcaster for the educated middle classes has gained pace recently, accompanied by SBS television’s moves to commercialisation with its so called “natural” advertising breaks. The harsh reality for Australia’s migrant population is the broadcaster, with the exception of its charter compliant radio division, pays scant attention to its multicultural and multilingual charter during peak viewing times.

Australia needs a fourth commercial television licence. Our media barons have had too much influence over the political process with their cosy oligopoly and protection from competition. The commercial networks have lobbied furiously and successfully to stop a fourth commercial licence. Ironically they’ve taken their eye off the ball with SBS who are effectively becoming Australia’s fourth commercial television station by stealth.

The commercial networks should be very wary of the SBS corporate plan. It reads like a job application for turning SBS into a mainstream commercial broadcaster. SBS wants to grow commercial revenue (read advertising revenue) and grow overall audience sized between 6pm and 12pm. SBS simply doesn’t see itself primarily as a multicultural and multilingual broadcaster anymore. In fact the SBS Corporate Plan reads like a great job application for SBS’s management to take over a commercial network next time one of our commercial broadcasters suffers another dramatic ratings slide.

But why would SBS act any differently. The board has been stacked with people from mostly similar backgrounds. Ironically if you want to find a board that doesn’t properly reflect Australia’s high levels of cultural diversity try SBS for size. Up until recently the SBS Board had just one person from a non-Anglo-Celtic background.

SBS television does provide interesting television for many. Its international documentaries are of profound interest to the educated middle classes. Their foreign movies with their decidedly adult content titillate the inner-urban elite. But again very little of their prime-time programming relates to the SBS Charter.

The current unpopularity of all things multicultural and the reduced political clout of the migrant sector has allowed SBS to get away with its gradual drift from its charter. Should Labor win the next election the question for their Communications Minister is: will SBS be brought to heel and told to meet their charter obligations? Or will they be allowed to continue sail off into the sunset as an elite commercial broadcaster?


The better option would be to return SBS to its multicultural, multilingual and public broadcasting charter and issue a fourth commercial television licence. SBS could then get on with meeting its multicultural and multilingual charter obligations and a fourth commercial television licence might provide the type of variety SBS is currently serving up in defiance of its charter obligations.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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