SBS has secured a one-off $4.1 million grant in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook delivered on Tuesday, to replace funding the broadcaster couldn’t raise after a bill that would have allowed it to air more ads in prime time failed to pass the Senate.
“SBS welcomes the government’s decision to reinstate some of our funding this financial year, given the proposed amendment to our advertising legislation was not passed by the Senate in June,” said SBS managing director Michael Ebeid.
The seeds for this funding boost were laid more than a year ago. When the government commissioned the Lewis Review into public broadcasting efficiencies last year, SBS was found to have little fat to cut. Because of this, when the government announced budget cuts to SBS and the ABC in November last year, SBS’ cuts were predicated in part on it being able to recoup some of the $25.2 million over five years through a legislative change to its charter allowing it to average the amount of advertising it airs throughout the day (thereby airing more when it is most valuable to advertisers — in prime time). The legislative change was expected to generate more in revenue than SBS would lose from a reduction in government funding — Malcolm Turnbull said he expected SBS to raise $28.5 million due to the change over five years.
But the measure was highly controversial and bitterly opposed by both SBS viewer lobby groups like Save our SBS and the commercial free-to-air TV sector, which feared SBS would take a bigger slice of the TV advertising pie.
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Despite SBS’ best efforts, the bill was defeated, with independent Senator Glenn Lazarus joining with Labor and the Greens to vote the bill down.
SBS declined to make any firm decisions about how to replace the funding shortfall in the immediate term. Sources told Crikey that the broadcaster was arguing to government MPs that given its funding cut had been tied to greater funding flexibility, a failure of this advertising flexibility should mean the government should reverse the funding cuts.
In October as he unveiled a new digital food channel, Ebeid said the broadcaster was “exhaust[ing] all avenues” in relation to its funding.
“We’re working with the government to try to revisit our funding before making any announcements on reducing any services. We’re hoping that we don’t have to do that Obviously the new government means we’re starting with some new players. I’ve got a new minister, so the government timetable is certainly not for me to announce.”
It appears SBS has had some early luck with new communications minister Mitch Fifield, though not all the funding it lost over a year ago has been replaced. The $4.1 million grant is only a one-off in the 2015-16 financial year, not recurrent funding over the forward estimates. This suggests the broadcaster has been given a reprieve, but not a reversal.
However, SBS, along with the ABC, is currently in the midst of early negotiations over its triennial funding arrangements with the government. The final funding figure will be announced in next year’s May budget — it is possible SBS might be able to argue for greater government funding then.