So what was the board of SBS trying to achieve by appointing backroom boy Michael Ebeid to the top of our second public broadcaster? And where might this appointment take the organisation, which is currently in financial difficulty and struggling to redefine itself?
The new boss, Michael Ebeid, was previously head of strategy and marketing for the ABC, but also has a strong commercial background. He is respected as a manager, but has no editorial or program experience to speak of.
Industry insiders believe the SBS board had previously sought out Sky News CEO Angelos Frangopolous for the job, but got the knock-back from him. In Ebeid, they believe they have a similar mix: an astute strategic thinker with commercial smarts and experience thinking about how to deliver a service cost effectively and across multiple platforms.
He has a difficult job to do. Under the management of previous MD Shaun Brown the multicultural broadcaster tried to straddle two stalls, being both a public broadcaster and an earner of dollars from advertising. The evidence would suggest the mixed model hasn’t worked. Chair of the SBS board Joseph Skrzynski is understood to want the public broadcaster to go back to basics, focusing on its core multicultural remit.
But what about the money? As history records, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was not always impressed with SBS taking ads when in opposition. Although he has muted his criticism since being in government, the funding outcomes in the last triennial review would suggest work needs to be done on relations with government.
Notable is that government has not been prepared to pick up the tab when the advertising dollars fail. SBS has, in effect, fallen between the two stalls.
Meanwhile, Ebeid’s former employer might hope to have better relations with its poorer cousin as a result of its former staffer taking the top job.
For some time the ABC has been urging the consideration of amalgamating the “back end” broadcasting contracts of SBS and the ABC, in the interests of cost savings. The government is known to be concerned that a large proportion of taxpayers’ dollars spent on public broadcasting goes straight to the Macquarie Bank, via Broadcasting Australia under the expensive transmission contracts.
Once, of course, the transmission infrastructure was government owned, but it was privatised in 1999, then sold to the Macquarie Bank and rebadged as Broadcast Australia. You can read the history here. It’s safe to say the monopoly arrangements have not served the taxpayer well.
Broadcasting Australia types are in the habit of referring to the public broadcasters as their “captive clients”, which does not bode well for the deal the taxpayers are getting under the current arrangements.
The issue of combining the back ends, which the ABC believes could save millions, was looked at as part of the government review of public broadcasting a few years ago, but SBS has persistently resisted the idea — fearing, no doubt that once administration functions are combined it would only be a matter of time before the front ends were brought together under a single umbrella as well, and the whole idea of a separate multicultural broadcaster was buried. Nobody on the current SBS board wants that outcome.
But given Ebeid has both a strong commercial background and experience seeking cost savings by rationalising production resources, I am tempted to join the dots and assume that, particularly given the current federal government current convergence review, amalgamating those back ends will once again be on the table.