Broadcast TV as we know it is currently taking its last gasp. The  PriceWaterhouseCoopers Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2010-1014 report may have found that free-to-air television has found a renewed stability from an audience and advertising standpoint, however this surely cannot continue to last. Long-promised Internet-capable TV’s are finally becoming a reality, while digital television has FTA broadcasters spreading their resources thin across multiple digital TV platforms. TV broadcasters need to determine their digital futures and work on developing bridging strategies. Of all the commercial broadcasters, SBS Television should offer the most potential of any established Australian broadcast TV organization. And yet, they’re floundering.

SBS logoSBS1 have reached a whole new low. Mumbrella report that Sunday night saw the channel achieve a new low share of 3.5%. This places the channel as eighth for the night – behind Seven, Nine, Ten, ABC1, 7Two, Go!, and One. Only ABC2, ABC3, and ABC News 24 fell behind SBS1 and SBS2. The past decade has seen SBS abandon their multi-cultural ethos, instead chasing the mainstream audience already catered for by the other commercial channels. Clearly this is an approach that hasn’t worked. SBS are losing repeatedly to six commercial channels of opposition on a distribution platform that is shedding viewers.

With TV already evolving beyond the broadcast signal, it is important for SBS to determine what they represent as an organization and to refocus their content and branding accordingly if they are to retain any relevancy in the new television environment.

SBS still have some strengths as a media organization. Each year SBS produces and commissions several high quality scripted series. East West 101, RAN, and Wilfred have all proven themselves as entertaining and valuable productions. And then there’s that amazing slogan used by SBS. “Six billion stories and counting”. It’s a great bit of branding that speaks strongly of their mission statement.

Largely, the content and programming strategies employed by SBS are what lets it down. A cursory look at the schedules for SBS1 and SBS2 reveals several flaws.

Both channels have an over-reliance on documentary series. I appreciate that SBS is running on a lean operating budget, but there simply needs to be a stronger reliance on scripted television. Going after big-branded US and UK series is costly, so why shouldn’t SBS work to its strengths and import more foreign-language scripted series? Inspector Rex continues to be one of the most popular shows on SBS1. It offers viewers content that they simply don’t see anywhere else on schedules. I’d love to finally get access to some of the amazing shows being produced across the globe that are simply unavailable to Australian viewers (the Israeli series BeTipul immediately comes to mind as a saleable proposition). The ABC and cable TV channels offer hours upon hours of doco series. Counter it, go niche, and create a point of difference.

InspectorRexAnother significant problem seems to be that neither SBS1 or SBS2 counter-program against one another. There are frequently foreign movies and doco series programmed against other foreign movies and doco series. Why not give the viewers a choice? Further to that, can viewers see a difference between the two SBS channels? SBS2 truly works as an extension of the brand, but there is seemingly very little difference between the two channels content-wise. Why not seek to use SBS2 more for documentaries and foreign film, while using SBS1 for foreign scripted fare, in-house produced news, commissioned series, and their popular reality shows (re: Mythbusters and Man vs Wild)?

Why are SBS wasting their marquee film titles on a Saturday night at 10pm? This week shows La Vie En Rose as their premiere movie. Surely with Inception earning big money in the cinemas (featuring THAT Edith Piaf song) and Marion Cotillard in the lead role, a film like this could pull in a respectable audience on a Sunday night. Nobody airs movies at 8:30pm on a Sunday and is Dateline really that much of a Sunday night institution that it can’t find a new timeslot?

SBS have so much wasted potential. As evidenced already by widget-aware TV sets with Internet connectivity, viewers will be accessing content via branded portals. It’s more important now than ever before that viewers are able to immediately recognise a brand and what it represents. In a world which will likely demand that viewers make a conscious decision to download and install such portals, can you really envision many to opt for SBS considering their current offering?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey