Last night SBS Managing Director Michael Ebeid faced a Senate Estimates committee where he cited concerns relating to falling advertising revenue. While SBS has enough cash to see it through the year, Ebeid stated that “Next year we would have a bigger problem if we were continuing to run a deficit”.

Broadcast TV is hurting with ad revenues down across the board. Data recently released by Free TV show that advertising revenue was down 4.5% last year. The reasons for this are many, but are primarily due to broadcast TV audiences getting older, increased competition for eyeballs by other media, and the fragmentation of the broadcast TV market.

SBS certainly isn’t alone in its concerns about long-term viability in the face of such circumstance, but with the channel often generating a very small audience for its prime time programs, it should certainly be concerned. In taking a look at their schedule, it isn’t a surprise that they aren’t attracting much of an audience.

Programming SBS has a great number of challenges in that they are seeking to meet an obligation to its charter as a multicultural broadcaster, but also to try and meet commercial obligations. All the while adhering to what I assume would be a very restrictive budget. That said, from the outside, I can’t see that they’re really doing much to build and keep an audience. In taking a look at the weekly prime time schedule SBS maintain, a few glaring issues quickly become apparent.

SBS is great for the casual viewer with the sheer number of documentaries and lifestyle programs it offers, but with so many of these shows acting as limited runs or one-offs, there is very little bringing viewers back on a regular basis. Viewers simply aren’t developing the habits required to have them tune in to SBS on a regular basis other than as an alternative to there simply being nothing else on an opposing channel. Yes, many of these documentaries are good and do fit the charter, but there’s no real audience building taking place with such a haphazard schedule.

This coming week (Feb 18-24, as per the TV Week guide), the following issues stuck out at me:

SATURDAY
SBS1
Following the dependable (and well-scheduled Rockwiz) at 9:30pm comes a double bill of the first run Mad Men season 3. Why are they wasting a marquee show like Mad Men with a double episode? Anyone tuning in for the first episode will stick around for the second (unless fatigue sets in…2 hours of Mad Men can be a bit much at times). Why not schedule one episode a week as a lead-in to a less recognised show and build an audience for it? Secondly, why are SBS even buying Mad Men season 3 to begin with? Most of the loyal audience for the show have watched it already by way of illicit downloading, it’s Australian first-run screening on Movie One (on Foxtel), or on DVD which has been on the shelves locally since August last year. By the time SBS are even getting to it, the show is pretty stale.

SBS2
At 11:30pm at night SBS2 are screening Blueberry, a pretty good looking western starring Vincent Cassel. Firstly, why is this being wasted in such a dead late night timeslot when, with a bit of attention, it could probably draw a respectable prime time audience. And secondly, why schedule a film like this late on a Saturday night against the well-established contemporary-classic movie double feature on ABC2. Yes, this week it’s up against the romance ‘The Way We Were’, but I do suspect there’s a surprising cross-over with an audience of discerning film fans. Instead of quality movies scheduled against quality movies, why not counter-program completely against this established weekly schedule?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZWkejObSj0[/youtube]

SUNDAY
SBS1

Why insist on a 9:30pm timeslot for movies? Especially this week with an Australian audience favourite ‘As It Is In Heaven’? The film, which had an uninterrupted run weekly over a couple of years at the Hayden Orpheum theatre in Cremorne, is simply going to lose viewers who won’t want to commit to a movie that will finish past their bed time with the start of the work week just a sleep away.

SBS2
A long-standing gripe of mine is why Ninja Warrior and Unbeatable Banzuke doesn’t get more promotional attention by SBS. They’re great casual viewing for a younger male-skewing crowd. While it’s commendable that they’ve remained in this timeslot for as long as they have, why not trial one of them on the Monday night youth schedule and build an audience on the back of Man Vs Wild/South Park instead of running one of the same 16 episodes of Wilfred…yet again.

MONDAY
SBS1

The consistency of the Mythbusters / Man Vs Wild schedule is great. Audiences know what they’re in for and know to tune in on Monday nights for this type of fare. They also know that edgy male-skewing shows like South Park, Pizza, Housos, Wilfred, Drawn Together, etc will run after. It’s a shame there isn’t a bit more variety in the post 9:30 shows that get recycled, but at least the audience know what will be on.

TUESDAY
SBS1

The shift for Insight and Dateline to the Tuesday night 8:30/9:30pm timeslots is a great move for 2012. Much like the Monday night line-up, this is actually a pretty good move and really does strengthen and build audience recognition.

WEDNESDAY
SBS2

Too often SBS1 and SBS2 schedule documentary and lifestyle shows against itself in the 7:30pm timeslot. Rex In Rome at 7:30pm offers the diversity so sorely required in this timeslot. It also serves as a good lead-in to The Killing at 8:30pm. It would be great to see some consistency in this timeslot, knowing that if I tune in to SBS2 at 8:30pm on a Thursday night, I’ll get a high quality foreign drama. As it stands, unless I thoroughly run through the guide, it is a stroke of luck to actually find them on the schedule and when you do, it’s rarely the first episode – often enough to dissuade me from continuing to watch.

THURSDAY
SBS1

24 Hours In Emergency is a great show that SBS are currently screening. Yet, beyond word of mouth, who the heck knows this is even a thing?

SBS2
The UEFA Champions League Hour is good counter-programming in a timeslot dominated by scripted fare across almost every other channel.

FRIDAY
SBS1

Where has the dependable Friday night dirty documentary disappeared to? It was perhaps the one scheduled timeslot that all of Australia knew.

What becomes apparent while taking a closer look at the schedule is just how lacking in identity SBS1 and SBS2 are. Neither have a flavour that distinguishes one from the other beyond the fact SBS2 has more movies scheduled at night, while SBS1 offers the news. Why not split it so that SBS1 retains its traditional multicultural content, while SBS2 offers edgier scripted and unique content? It often feels like SBS is pulling in two directions as it offers such an eclectic programming offering. Why not use the multi-channels as a way to actually provide a clear definition?

SBS also falls down with such a reliance on Anglo-European content. With such an influx of Australians coming from Asian countries, why does SBS offer so little for this audience? And considering just how pervasive Asian culture has been on Australia in recent years, there is undoubtedly a white audience who’ll be just as keen to experience the content.  I’m sure there is a wealth of cheap, interesting, and innovative TV from across Asia that would feel right at home on SBS.

Recently SBS Television launched their PopAsia program on Sunday mornings. Why not further utilise the PopAsia brand/content for late night timeslots on Friday/Saturday? That’d provide a massive point of difference against anything else airing on FTA television. It’d fit the charter, quickly gain an audience, and (most importantly) it’d be very cheap to schedule.

The SBS service desperately needs to be strengthened with a much better online/catch-up offering. While SBS is available on some platforms, it hasn’t been nearly proactive enough in rolling out SBS across enough connected TV platforms, or across mobile devices. Increasingly, fewer of us are relying on watching linear television services and this is really the only way to continue to keep them engaging with the SBS service/brand.

The content that SBS can offer is unique. They have little competition when it comes to serving the audience with multi-cultural content and there’s an audience that hunger for it. Especially Asian content. The potential of SBS as a local and international brand is limitless, but their confused schedule and channel line-up on FTA television is hindering them. Unless they’re able to actively draw in an audience, their ad revenue levels will continue to drop at a drastic level. If  the govt doesn’t intervene, there’s really no hope for a broadcaster like SBS – unless they get a little more creative with how they deliver their content.