There were conflicting responses from the ABC (smiles), SBS (fear) and the community TV sector (puzzlement) at the fallout from the Federal Budget.

In fact SBS is so pissed off that it is threatening to cut services across the board, while community TV groups (Channel 31 in most cities) are planning some sort of campaign to tell viewers not to bother buying a digital TV.

The ABC is getting $167 million over four years, of which $67 million will finance the new children’s digital channel. There’s $70 million for local drama production and $15 million for new regional digital hubs.

All the moaners and groaners who complain about the ABC not being properly funded should sit down and have a Bex over the next four years. The ABC will be getting over $1 billion of taxpayers money a year. That’s more than enough.

“Australians of all ages and in all parts of the country will benefit from innovative new programming created through a significant funding increase for the ABC in the Federal Budget today”, the ABC’s statement last night said.

The kids channel is a good idea; but $70 million extra for the ABC over the next four years for drama has raised eyebrows. As the statement put it: “$70 million for local drama production, enabling the ABC to work closely with the independent production sector to develop quality drama across a range of genres to be aired on television and online.”

“A range of genres” is the odd part of that statement: the ABC doesn’t have a successful track record in local drama in any genres at the moment and hasn’t really had one since the days of SeaChange. It’s had some fitful attempts, such as East of Everything, RainShadow, The Cut, and at the moment, Dirt Game, which is more worthy attempt than some of the other productions.

Where the ABC has been very successful is in programs like Spicks and Specks, The Gruen Transfer and Chris Lilley’s efforts, plus The Chaser, which returns later this month when Gruen finishes. The success of these programs has happened without extra funding from the Government because the ABC has taken risks and backed new ideas and new talent and producers.

Its efforts in drama have been on the whole, reworked versions of SeaChange and unsuccessful for that. Programs like Australian Story work because they tell stories about Australians to Australia, mostly unfiltered.

SBS, for example has produced the best local drama in the past couple of years in The Circuit. So let’s hope the ABC’s $70 million isn’t merely splashed up against a wall or three somewhere in Sydney and Melbourne, and in expensive trips to film festivals and TV jaunts to MIP and MIPCOM in Cannes.

The multicultural broadcaster is very upset: it got an extra $20 million over four years from the government. That will teach them to lose the rights to the Socceroos (minister Senator Stephen Conroy is a soccer tragic, and not a fan of SBS CEO, Shaun Brown). It also doesn’t help to have a board stacked with Liberal party appointees, such as Gerald Stone, Carla Zampatti and Christopher Pearson.

In a statement issued last night SBS had this to say:

Multicultural broadcaster SBS has welcomed the $20 million additional funding over the next three years announced tonight as part of the Federal Budget but warned it is not enough to deliver on its future needs.

The Government tonight announced that SBS will receive an additional $4 million in 2009-10, $5 million in 2010-11 and $11 million in 2011-12. This will be offset by around $4 million worth of savings SBS will need to make over the next three years.

Last year SBS identified its priorities over the next five years to meet the current and emerging needs of the various communities it serves as well as to deliver new programming that explores the true, multicultural Australia and helps the Australian community better engage with the world.

These plans included delivering more Australian content across more platforms, increasing the levels of in-language content on television, radio and online and committing to much-needed services for newly arrived migrants such as English language tuition and in-language children’s programming for cultural maintenance and the development of language skills.

Importantly, the planned increase in investment in locally produced content by SBS would have had the twin benefit of preserving Australia’s cultural and creative identity while protecting jobs and skills in the independent production sector.

The global financial crisis has clearly put an enormous strain on the Federal Budget and SBS is grateful the Government stood by its election commitment to consider the funding levels of the national broadcasters.

However, the shortfall between SBS’s needs and the triennial funding outcome will significantly affect our ability to deliver new services and, in the next two years at least, put pressure on existing services.

SBS has also been feeling the effects of the economic downturn and is predicting a significant shortfall in commercial revenue in the next financial year. Coupled with only a modest injection to our triennial funding, it will be difficult to continue to deliver the services Australian audiences expect and deserve.

SBS will try hard to preserve its core services and has already committed to launching its digital channel SBS TWO on 1 June, but other planned services across television, radio and online will have to be significantly scaled back.

We will renew our engagement with the Government about the future of SBS in the hope of addressing the funding shortfall.

That sounds both like a dummy spit and a threat.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey