What are the implications for public
broadcasting of SBS’s decision to take advertising in the middle of programs,
and not only at the end? It is a small
but a crucial step in the tense dance between public interest and profit in the
media world.

“The difference between commercial
broadcasting and public broadcasting is the difference between consumers and
citizens.” So said the former head of SBS, Nigel
Milan, last year when he addressed the annual dinner at the Australian
Communications and Media Authority conference.


His statement was greeted with much mumbling around
the tables, stacked as they were with those who have made lucrative accommodations
with what they describe as “the real world”, in which media content
is valued because it draws eyeballs. (Milan, of course,
was from the “real world”. Before he
became a public broadcaster it was he who convinced John Laws to join Sydney’s 2UE. It
would be nice to hear him reflect on whether Laws addresses consumers or
citizens.)

I heard one Channel 10 executive snort into
the port that SBS was a fraud. It was
meant to be an ethnic broadcaster, but the people who watched it were all white
middle class. “The ethnics are over on Channel 10 watching Big
Brother
.” Among many other things, Big Brother is one of the most skilful
blurrings of content and advertising, with the house a temple to product
placement.

It would be trite to suggest that SBS is
becoming like Channel 10 in its attitude to advertising, but the risk is that
the difference will become one of degree rather than kind.

If governments aren’t going to adequately
fund public broadcasters, then those of us who care about what they provide
must face difficult questions. Would we
prefer to have their content supported by advertising or would we rather do
without that content and see its quality decline? The third option might be to find other ways
of earning money, but there are no easy choices.

With the increasing commercialisation of
public broadcasters, the main difference between them and commercial broadcasters
is their charters – the fact that they have a reason to exist other than
earning advertising dollars. The
advertising is, in theory, a means to an end, not the end in itself.

The key question for both the SBS and the
ABC is whether public broadcasters can take advertising without skewing their
purpose. There are lots of reasons to
doubt it.

The
truth is, of course, that we are all both citizens and consumers. In the
commercialised world they are not opposites, but enmeshed. But which is dominant
when we access and use media content? Are we using the media, or being used? That to my mind is the
distinction which should be defended against all comers.

Peter Fray

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