Top Gear, the BBC’s motoring show, returned to SBS with a new series at 7.30pm last night but I wonder if some viewers were left wondering just what was going on.

SBS is now cramming ads into every prime time show it can find – in a tasteful and non-commercial fashion, of course – but there does seem to have been a  brain fade at the broadcaster. Top Gear runs for an hour on BBC 2 in the UK, but our friends at SBS and its highly commercial CEO, Shaun Brown, seem to have forgotten a basic edict of TV: you can’t cram more than an hour of content into an hour. And if last night’s edition of Top Gear is any guide, SBS has been hacking and chopping in what would have to be the most ham-fisted attempt at cutting seen since film was spliced.

In fact it’s contrary to the guidelines so lovingly crafted by the broadcaster’s bureaucrats and spinners:

Section 45 of the Special Broadcasting Services Act, 1991 (SBS Act) provides that SBS may broadcast advertisements and sponsorship announcements before or after programs and during natural breaks and that run in total for not more than five minutes in any hour of broadcasting. All decisions regarding commercial revenue are subject to the overriding principle that the integrity of the SBS Charter and SBS’s editorial independence are paramount and shall not be compromised in any way. Decisions about the placement of advertisements in programs will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will have regard to program content and context. SBS will exercise sensitivity in the placement of advertisements. All advertisements will be clearly distinguished from SBS programming content.

So to fit five minutes of ads into Top Gear, five minutes of content was taken out: a News segment that appeared in previous series wasn’t there, nor was a segment featured in the opening teaser which didn’t make it to air.

How’s that for the “exercise of sensitivity” as suggested in the above guidelines? It will not be obvious where SBS uses material from commercial or government owned networks which broadcast ads, but it will be an issue for material from the BBC, as Top Gear is.

When it has to shoehorn 65 minutes of content and ads into an hour, SBS will always have problems no matter what sort of commitment is made to exercise “sensitivity”. And with the internet, cuts and alterations can be quickly found and compared to what went to air on the BBC. The broadcaster is on a hiding to nothing on this issue.

Peter Fray

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