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.”
SBS still describes itself as “the voice and vision of multicultural Australia” but programs in languages other than English (LOTE) have almost disappeared from prime time.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority defines prime time as the hours between 6pm and 10.30pm. A check of the program schedule for SBS TV for the 14 days between February 22 and March 6, 2008 reveals that just less than 80 per cent of programs were in English.
Moreover those programs which are broadcast in LOTE during prime time bear practically no relationship to how the languages in question were spoken in the community. For example Chinese languages (Mandarin and Cantonese) together accounted for just 0.8 per cent of prime time broadcasts. However Mandarin and Cantonese, taken together, account for 27.09 per cent of all LOTE spoken in Australia.
Advertising has not only affected the language issue. It has also led to a sameness in programming. According to Dr Glenn Withers this is part of a broader economic phenomenon known the Principle of Minimum Differentiation (PDF 130KB):
The reason for this is that stations based on advertising revenue will seek to maximize their audience (and thereby their revenue). Stations will therefore duplicate program types as long as the audience share obtained is greater than that from other programs. Hence a number of stations may compete by sharing a market for one type of program (such as crime dramas) and still do better in audience numbers than by providing programs of other types (such as arts and culture). In economics this point is an application of the Principle of Minimum Differentiation, a principle also capable of explaining such associated phenomenon as why bank branches may cluster together, why airline schedules may be parallel, and why political parties may have convergent policy platforms.
Ethnic communities have been quick to notice the changes. In December 2003 Federation of Ethnic Communities Council (FECCA) Chair Abd Malik said:
The only people who like SBS TV now are the cappuccino crowd … it’s mostly sex and soccer I think. He added that FECCA was “very close to giving up on SBS TV … they have separated themselves from ethnic communities. They don’t come to our functions or religious festivals.
The dismissive, not to say insulting, response from then SBS Managing Director Nigel Milan was “We’re not going to cover the clog dancing from the Brisbane Town Hall”.
In June 2005 George Zangalis, President of the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council, and a former member of the SBS board, issued a media release criticising the direction of SBS TV:
Programming in community languages has shrunk, while English programming has grown. Advertising has increased and become increasingly strident. Rather than focusing on different cultures, the SBS seems to be moving towards mainstream sports like cricket and now AFL. There is plenty of this type of programming on the ABC and the three commercial channels.
In June 2006, interviewed on ABC radio the new Chair of FECCA, Voula Mesimeri responded:
… the intention of having the special broadcaster is so that they can be a multicultural provider, a special broadcaster in terms of being different from commercial enterprise, and I think that this will make it, increasingly, look very much like mainstream, commercial enterprise.
While advertisements have brought in extra money, much of that money seems to be going to the kind of programs that can be found on commercial stations. For example some $10 million is to be spent on a locally produced motoring program, in English.