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SBS sells itself short

By Darce Cassidy - posted Thursday, 13 March 2008

Both in Canada and Australia anger is mounting against what many see as the destruction of public broadcasting.

In Australia more than 7,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban on interrupting programs with advertisements. In Canada a Senate inquiry has recommended a ban on advertising on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and a significant increase in the national broadcaster’s budget.

This week the Australian Democrats will introduce a Bill in the Senate to ban within-program advertising on the SBS. A Liberal backbencher also plans to raise the issue in the House of Representatives shortly.


This backlash has surprised many people. SBS TV has been running advertisements since 1992, while the CBC has carried advertising for even longer.

What has caused this change in public attitude? I think it is because broadcasters find advertising revenue addictive. You start with a little, but over time crave more and more.

That was pretty much how it happened in the United States. Advertising was not the main support for radio in its early days in the US. Erik Barnouw, author of the definitive history of broadcasting in the US, says that, initially, advertising was very discreet. Prices were never mentioned. Mention of personal items, like toothpaste, mouth wash or underclothes was taboo.

Companies attached their names to entertainers, like the Ipana Troubadours, the Browning-King Orchestra and the Goodrich Silvertown Orchestra. There was no mention that Ipana made toothpaste, or that Goodrich made tires, let alone any suggestion that listeners should buy these products.

A strict ban on the mention of prices and store locations remained. The broadcasting lobby group, The National Association of Broadcasters, proposed that sponsorship announcements be banned from prime time listening, on the basis that it was family listening time.

All this changed with the 1929 Great Depression. CBS, one of the major networks was in trouble. George Washington Hill, President of American Tobacco, came to the rescue. Cremo cigars were suffering from rumours that they were made with spit. He needed to counter the rumours, and was prepared to pay. CBS capitulated, and in between tunes from the Cremo Military Band an announcer shouted: “There is no spit in Cremo.”


NBC soon followed suit and sponsorship became advertising, and aggressive.

Initially the SBS was free of advertising. However once advertising was introduced, programs started to change. As in the United States, advertising on the SBS was initially discreet. Today, the SBS goes well beyond “no spit in Cremo” and interrupts serious documentaries with advertisements for erectile dysfunction medication.

Director of Commercial Affairs Richard Finlayson confirmed this change in policy when he told the Financial Review that the broadcaster had reviewed “the type of ads it will and will not accept. In the past SBS has been reluctant to carry some ads, such as hard-hitting, in-your-face retails ads. That’s changing.”

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About the Author

Darce Cassidy is Secretary of Save Our SBS. His background is in broadcasting and journalism, having worked for the ABC (Four Corners, AM and PM, in various radio management roles), the SBS (Training), and the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council.

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Dumbing down SBS - On LIne Opinion

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