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TV & Radio

May 21, 2010

SBS cuts back on subtitling in 'drift away from multiculturalism'

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, writes Crikey intern Matt de Neef.


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.


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19 thoughts on “SBS cuts back on subtitling in ‘drift away from multiculturalism’

  1. jungarrayi

    Merde! (Damn!)… Living on a place where they speak one of the few remaining “strong” Aboriginal languages (Warlpiri), this doesn’t come as a surprise to me.
    The monolingual, ethnocentric, xenophobic forces of ignorance are in charge.
    To me, cultural and linguistic diversity is the crowning glory of human achievement.
    Die klootzakken willen dat verpesten (those silly people want to spoil it).
    Before you start picking on me, my watering down of the “sub-titles” is deliberate.

  2. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    I believe that we need a robust public debate but how well our public broadcasters are meeting their charter.

    The only times our politicians seem interested in the public broadcasters is when they perceive political bias in the reporting.

    Within the vacuum of public debate about meeting the charter, the management of both the ABC and SBS have increasingly acted as if the stations were THEIR stations.

    Both the ABC and SBS have lost track of what they should be doing according to their charters, and are becoming increasingly populist.

    That both the ABC and SBS watermark all their programs shows that marketing their brand is perceived as more important than quality broadcasting. SBS’s now and next graphics are designed to draw attention away from the program. Promotion over end credits is now common-place on both the ABC and SBS.

    A friend even saw the ABC put up a full-screen ‘coming up next’ information screen on-top of a still running interview on ABC2.

    The head of SBS has said that if the Government gave them the money to replace ad revenue for the ads in-between programs, that he would still show ads in-between programs.

    So what is the real reasons that SBS want ads in-between their programs if it is not for the revenue. It is because every ad break gives them an opportunity for more branding and station promotion. SBS management want SBS to look and feel like a commercial TV station (perhaps they think this will look good on their resume).

    They do not care what viewers think.

    Of course programming is the main way they are both moving away from their charter.

    Am I the only person who is sick and tired of most of the ABC drama budget being spend on yet another attempt to recreate the success of Sea Change?

    I’m sure that if you asked SBS viewers whether they like the current SBS or would prefer a return to the good old days, the answer would be an overwhelming wish to go back to the original charter.

    As an owner and viewer of the ABC and SBS there seems nothing I can do about my unhappiness with current management.

    We need some sackings at both SBS and ABC, and I’m not suggesting we sack the ordinary staff. It is the top management that needs to go.

  3. Meski

    “really unique” – qualifying an absolute.

  4. maury.sebastien@abc.net.au

    This is sad indeed. I have often seen films on SBS a 2nd time having seen them at the cinema originally, and the work the subtitlers do is simply superb (I can only vouch for the French and Japanese, although I have no doubt the quality is strong across the board). If we are now to rely on the (usually) American original subtitles, God help us all.

  5. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    Another scandal with SBS is that they run World Movies.

    To maximize the profit from this, SBS shows movies on pay first, and then waits about a year before showing them on FTA TV.

    As an example, two non-repeat movies on SBS TV next week are from 2006 and 2007. I’m sure that when SBS was new, we did not have to wait so long to see these world movies on FTA TV.

    And as someone who has viewed several hundred foreign films in the cinema, I also have high praise for the work done by the SBS subtitlers.

  6. baal

    SBS’ stead demise a result of hiring New Zealanders to run it down.

  7. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    The demise of SBS, and it only gets comment from 5 SBS supporters (and one wannabe english teacher).

    Please post if you support the old-style SBS.

  8. Malcolm Street

    Michael- yes, I’ve been concerned about the transition of SBS from a genuine multi-cultural niche broadcaster to a wannabe equivalent of the UK’s Channel 4 for some time.

    Note to SBS – learn from what happened to Top Gear (and Mad Men). You try to play with the big boys, get good ratings, all that happens is that someone with more money will swoop down and pick the program up (and totally stuff it up if you look at what Nine has done to Top Gear…)

  9. Ian Rudd

    Yes, both SBS & ABC are about cloning themselves into commercial-like, lowest common denominator broadcast media. I don’t know how much of this is attributable to management or government funding restrictions or a combination. Does the government make appointments that they see as helping them towards the goal of more privatized public broadcasting outfits?

  10. mark

    What is the point of having another commercial channel? SBS was a brilliantly conceived and implemented idea. Where is the government when it is needed to protect a cornerstone of our cultural, dare I say it multi-cultural, fabric..

  11. smith

    The managing director had apparently told staff that the government didn’t allocate enough funds for subtitling and sbs will buy programs subtitled overseas. Minister Conroy is sending Australian jobs overseas. It will be good to know if this is the minister’s decision or the decision of the sbs board?

  12. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    Apparently the move away from multiculturalism has resulted in SBS loosing the support of some ethnic lobby groups.

    They are also loosing the support of anglo’s such as myself (I wrote a submission to the enquiry urging the government NOT to fund SBS further as I had no faith in their management.)

    As there was little lobbying by the community for SBS to get increased funds, it was probably an easy decision not to give them extra money.

    If SBS scrapped some of their more commercial non-multi-cultural programs I’m sure they would still be able to afford the subtitlers.

  13. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    Further to the last comment, if SBS only showed content that the other channels did not want, then what they did show would be good value for money.

    If no-one else wants the World Cup, then SBS can get it cheap, and even though I have no interest in sport, I think showing it can be justified under the charter.

    But getting into bidding wars for programs such at Top Gear (and maybe the Word Cup?) means that if SBS ‘wins’ the program they are paying far too much.

    Management wants SBS to be their own commercial TV network.

    I want SBS to return to their charter and only show what the others will not.

  14. EngineeringReality

    Its a dead-set outrage that we are letting our public broadcasters die a slow and painful death.

    SBS has always been an invaluable resource to enable Australians to easily and effectively connect to the myriad of cultures outside the USA. So many movies and documentaries from other cultures are so different and refreshing from the cookie-cutter, commercial bland offerings from the US.

    If you relied on the commercial stations then Australians would become as unaware about the world around them as the average American.

    Subtitling is the only effective way of being able to watch and connect with a foreign film. A trip through the world through SBS can have you in a Japanese noodle shop to Ice-locked & cabin bound in a Scandinavian igloo.

    With dubbing of the actor’s voices you only get a small proportion of the meaning of each scene or interview – and it is only effective subtitling that will allow you to get the most from the movie.

    Cheaper and less quality of subtitling will mean that dialogue will be misconstrued or left out.

    One of the best movies I have watched on SBS have been Russian – and so now it seems that we won’t be able to see Russian movies or Hungarian or Swedish or Dutch films.

    More examples of why we are rapidly becoming “The Dumb Country”.

  15. Michael Wilbur-Ham

    Isn’t SOS just a new name for Eat Carpet?

  16. sarcastic

    This is how SBS foreign films will look after the cuts:


  17. Raymond Bange

    There are two important aspects to these moves and sub-titling generally.

    The first is the loss of viewers like myself who are not multilingual but who find many foreign movies are a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood pap and shallow values and weak storylines.

    The second is the disadvantage suffered by a substantial number of viewers who suffer hearing loss like me (look up the percentages some day!) and actually seek out sub-titled programs so we can enjoy TV without excessive volume.

    In my opinion, it would be a good idea to require subtitling as an option on all programs (or a high percentage) as a condition for a broadcasting licence. This should apply particularly to pay TV where we now have advertising foisted on the viewer as well as paying for the privilege of viewing.

  18. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    “Despite the suggestion that SBS is showing less foreign content than ever before, McMillan maintains that the amount is on the rise. “SBS has expanded its range of LOTE content, and by July SBS will be showing the largest amount of in-language content in its history across SBS ONE and SBS TWO. This does not just include WorldWatch in-language news.” 

    Well of course SBS is showing more content before. But how much NEW content is being shown.

    I’m sure that the “more content” includes things like the movies shown on SBS TWO – most of which are repeats of what has already been shown on SBS ONE.

    As SBS are a commercial station without any integrity, they do not list a movie to be shown on SBS TWO that has previously been shown on SBS ONE as a repeat. After all, they say, it is the first time that this movie has been shown on SBS TWO, thus it is new content (for SBS TWO).


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