At least 10 staff from SBS Television’s subtitling unit will be made redundant because of what the network’s critics have long feared — an apparent reduction in foreign language content.

SBS says the downsizing is the result of “significant over-capacity” uncovered as part of an external review of the subtitling unit. Crikey understands the redundancies were announced by managing director Shaun Brown on Tuesday in a meeting with the team.

“While SBS will retain a significant subtitling presence in-house, a number of redundancies were announced across the entire unit,” SBS corporate communications manager Jane McMillan said.

The move comes amid growing concerns that SBS’s reliance on advertising revenue has come at the expense of quality foreign content. In a letter to the government’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy in 2008, SaveOurSBS.org spoke of the apparent shift:

“Since advertising was first allowed on the SBS in the early 1990s, there has been a steady drift away from the original multicultural mandate of the SBS.”

According to the SBS Charter, the network’s “primary function” is to “provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services” in order to “reflect Australia’s multicultural society”. Dr Mike Walsh, a senior lecturer in Screen Studies at Flinders University, believes SBS has strayed from its original mandate.

“There was a time when SBS was really unique in the world’s TV landscape. It played a vital role in bringing a diverse range of non-English language broadcasting and films to a large number of the general Australian community,” he told Crikey.

“Recent management seems to have a policy to make it less unique, to pull it into the mainstream forms of television.” As a result, “foreign language programming has fallen into a cultural no-man’s land.”

While SBS has maintained the number of hours of foreign language content that it broadcasts over the last few years, SBS TWO now shows over nine hours of foreign language news every day. These news bulletins are broadcast without subtitles, meaning less work for the SBS subtitling unit, internationally acclaimed as one of the best in the world.

According to a source within the unit, SBS also intends to “buy much more material subtitled overseas because it’s cheaper” as well as “outsourcing subtitling to cheaper agencies”. These measures are likely to lead to a further reduction in work for Australian subtitlers and, conceivably, further job cuts.

At its peak, the SBS employed 60 staff in its subtitling unit, all for a single TV channel. Despite now broadcasting on multiple channels, SBS has already reduced its subtitling unit to 30, with the recently announced cuts taking it down to 20.

Sources tell Crikey that, while Brown claimed redundancies would be announced in the days following the initial meeting, two staff members were spoken to by subtitling manager Winnie Lai shortly after the meeting.

“An hour after the meeting they started calling people into the manager’s office — they’d already decided who was going to go,” the source told Crikey.

Crikey has also been told that a further two subtitlers have since been informed of their upcoming redundancies by Lai. All four subtitlers are the sole staff members for their respective languages, with the Swedish, Dutch, Russian and Hungarian languages reportedly affected. An email sent from Brown to subtitling staff has confirmed the initial talks:

“I authorised Winnie Lai to have conversations with single person language groups that may be affected,” the managing director wrote.

While Brown has assured staff that “these conversations are not the commencement of a redundancy process”, Crikey has been informed that the staff involved have been left in little doubt as to their futures at SBS.

Crikey believes that members of the subtitling unit will be seeking action from the Community and Public Sector Union following the cuts.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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