Three SBS departments could be axed as the multicultural broadcaster puts out to tender its play-out systems, engineering and archiving departments.

Crikey understands that up to 62 workers could lose their jobs with the broadcaster as a result of the plans, which have been communicated to affected staff in two information sessions.

The outsourcing push comes as SBS, along with the ABC, braces for funding cuts first flagged as “down-payments” in the May budget, which itself cut 1% of SBS’ funding, or $8 million over four years. The broadcaster has also been subject to the Lewis Review efficiency study, which recommended ways SBS could reduce costs, including through further merging of back-end operations with the ABC. Some senior staff in the broadcaster’s engineering and play-out areas have already been made redundant as part of this efficiency drive.

Crikey understands two companies have expressed an interest in bidding for SBS’ outsourced broadcasting capabilities, particularly its play-out services. “Play-out” is a TV industry term for video being converted into a format that can be aired by broadcasters. SBS is expected to decide by December or January which of two companies bidding for the tender will get the play-out contract.

SBS staff fear the outsourcing of these skills will lead to a deskilling of the SBS workforce. “It’s a major step,” one said. “SBS will no longer have an engineering team. Anything to do with broadcast — it’s all going to be outsourced.”

“If three departments go outside SBS, it sets precedents for other departments. And once you lose a set of skills it’s very hard to ever bring that back in house,” the staff member said.

An SBS spokesperson told Crikey that SBS began outsourcing play-out services for NITV and its subscription TV channels World Movies and STUDIO in 2012. The broadcaster confirmed it was in negotiations to outsource play-out services for SBS One and SBS Two, “subject to successful negotiations with a number of preferred vendors and on the basis that it would lead to further efficiencies for the organisation”.

“Whilst SBS is not able to comment on speculation around the vendors it is negotiating with or details of those negotiations, the organisation is examining a model in which a successful vendor would work in partnership with SBS to migrate SBS services to a new platform next year.”

“Digitisation and convergence is reshaping the media broadcasting industry and this shift is in line with a global trend towards outsourcing components of the broadcast value chain,” the spokesperson added.

But SBS sources question whether outsourcing many of the broadcaster’s functions, leading to a loss of institutional knowledge, will really cut costs.

The level of outsourcing and casualisation within the broadcaster is already significant. According to written answers provided to Senate estimates in June, SBS had 1082.4 full-time equivalent staff in June 2014. Of these, only 33.7% were on permanent contracts. Most of SBS’ staff (45%) were clustered around SBS band 3, but 10.5% were on the executive level 1 band.

Peter Fray

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