Staff at SBS’ sports division were hauled into meetings on March 20 and warned there would be an investigation if any more leaks about the broadcaster came out.

The meetings were in response to Fairfax revelations that SBS had been in talks with commercial broadcasters about on-selling its soccer rights.

At a meeting on March 19, SBS staffers quizzed SBS chief content officer Helen Kellie on whether Fairfax’s reports were true, but Kellie wouldn’t be drawn on the issue. The following day, when details of that meeting appeared in Fairfax papers, staff were again called into a meeting. It was far more heated this time, with Kellie saying she would be forced to launch an investigation should any more leaks occur. The suggestion wasn’t taken well by SBS staff, who argued that SBS management should be more transparent if they didn’t want leaks.

SBS has form on this. When details of a reduction in Dateline‘s budget were revealed in Crikey by supervising producer Allan Hogan last year, staff were hauled into a meeting with news and current affairs chief Jim Carroll. They were told Hogan’s piece had been an act of extreme disloyalty, were asked whether any of them agreed with his criticisms, and were told their employment with the program would be contingent upon loyalty to the new direction. Most staff did not have their contracts renewed when the program was later cut to half an hour a few days later.

Tensions within SBS are likely to escalate further, after an email written by SBS World News executive producer Andrew Clark was leaked yesterday to The Guardian media columnist Amanda Meade. The email detailed a strategy to keep viewers tuned to the second half of World News, as the program experiences a drop in viewership at 7pm once the ABC’s bulletin starts. Clark wrote:

“The switch over to the ABC would imply we are mainly losing the older viewers at that time. Running stories such as Ukraine, Ebola (stories which may have seen incremental movement day-to-day) are more vulnerable to turn-off between 1855 and 1905. The focus group research showing Middle East, indigenous, asylum yarns are of less interest to viewers would also indicate moving them out of that time period.”

In the lead-up to 7pm, he suggested “quirky” stories would help keep viewers tuned in.

SBS responded to suggestions this was dumbing down the news by saying the email was about story placement, not what stories get run at all.

But Crikey understands ratings do play a large role in how journalists at SBS are judged. In some cases, ratings performance is written into SBS journalists’ contracts. Staff at SBS are informed of their division’s ratings performance on a weekly to daily basis, depending on the division, and they are told which stories or segments have performed particularly well. 

These figures would presumably become even more important if a proposal to allow SBS to air more ads in prime time passes the Senate. SBS’ ability to monetise the increase will depend on it achieving good ratings in prime time.

It’s worth noting ABC staff also gripe that the broadcaster has become more ratings-focused in recent years.

Peter Fray

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