Has SBS’ time come? ABC boss Mark Scott appears to think so, describing the multicultural broadcaster as an “analogue solution in a digital world” at Senate estimates yesterday. In a world of multichannels, he said, there was no reason to produce multicultural content with an entirely separate network.

A solution to this redundancy could be to merge our public broadcasters, and in fact suggestions SBS be made part of the ABC go a long way back — well before the rise of digital television. SBS was originally intended to operate as part of the ABC, until then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser grew convinced then-ABC management’s heart wasn’t in it. But ABC executives and board members in particular have floated the suggestion of a merger from time to time. Those within SBS firmly reject it, as former chairman Joe Skrzynski did at the National Press Club in 2014.

A merger, Skrzynski said, was “wrong in principle, bad economics and even worse politics”. The ABC was already too complex for its board to handle, and if multicultural broadcasting were added to the mix, there was no doubt it would be squeezed out and forgotten, Skrzynski argued. He told Crikey this morning that his views hadn’t changed.

In 2014, Skrzynski referenced the comments of former ABC chairman Maurice Newman three years earlier. On his way out of the role, Newman described not having achieved a merger between the two broadcasters as one of his regrets. “I think the case for funding two public broadcasters is increasingly hard to sustain,” he told The Australian in 2011. The ABC under Newman went so far as to commission a Boston Consulting Group report into the prospect, which estimated recurring annual savings of $41 million, no doubt partly through the redundancies of 125 staff. Newman told the Oz he’d been pushing for a merger during his chairmanship, to no avail.

Melbourne University journalism academic Margaret Simons, who has been covering the possibility of a merger between the two bodies for years, told Crikey that in her many interviews with Scott, she didn’t get the vibe he saw a merger as a key focus. “My reading of Scott is he’s not necessarily pushing for it,” she said. “I think he does believe it’s a logical solution.”

“It’s common sense in a way: you can do so much more with multichannels, and spectrum is no longer scarce.”

Part of Scott’s argument, raised in response to SBS’ concerns the ABC was moving in on its turf by scheduling Foreign Correspondent at the same time as Dateline, rested on the fact that much SBS programming on television now no longer appears primarily targeted at multicultural communities. “I think it’s true to say on any reckoning that there is far less subtitled content on its main channel than 20 or 30 years ago on their main channel,” he said. And SBS2 competed with ABC2 in airing younger-skewing programs in English.

SBS’ early approaches with multichannels was to focus on particular ethnic groupings. SBS2, for example, was conceived to focus on Asia-Pacific speciality shows, but was relaunched in 2013 to appeal to a youth audience (16-39). Critics note a young-skewing, English-speaking demographic is more useful to advertisers. “To get mass audiences  you have to move to the middle,” said media analyst Peter Cox. “It’s a little bit like politics.”

But others point out SBS television hasn’t attempted to focus on foreign-language broadcasting for decades. The University of Western Sydney’s Professor Ien Ang, who wrote a book on SBS’ history, says if you want to see SBS’ commitment to multiculturalism, look to SBS Radio.

SBS broadcasts in 74 languages, which is twice as many languages as the Vatican Radio (some senators describe SBS radio as “twice the voice of God”). Even the BBC only serves 37 languages. SBS Radio broadcasts Australian news and current affairs, including daily news bulletins, in dozens of languages. While Australians who don’t speak fluent English can, these days, access news online from their place of birth, SBS Radio alone gives them Australia news in their native tongues.

“Radio is much more flexible than television,” Ang says. “It’s much more able to cater to smaller and more highly targeted audiences. SBS TV has always been hard, because of the enormous emphasis on ratings within broadcast television.”

Beginning in the 1990s, SBS television began to operate very differently from SBS radio. While radio continued to expand into new languages, television catered to what Ang calls “more cosmopolitan tastes” with the airing of many foreign-language films. In the early 2000s, the focus skewed younger, with edgier content like South Park, which was a massive hit for SBS.

Many of SBS’ biggest supporters don’t like the change of focus. Steve Aujard, head of viewer lobby group Save our SBS, tells Crikey the ABC wouldn’t be able to run the arguments it ran yesterday if SBS hadn’t moved away from its charter in the first place.

“We think there’s a need for SBS, but SBS needs to lift its game,” Aujard said. “If it doesn’t, of course there’ll be more and more discussions about some sort of merger. I’m prepared to listen to what everyone’s saying about it. And my comment would be, if SBS had been doing what they’re supposed to do on SBS television … we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

Aujard is a fierce critic of the commercialisation of SBS, and was strongly opposed to the ad averaging bill proposed (and defeated in the Senate) last year. But he says that despite the frustrations community groups and some stakeholders have had with SBS of late, he can’t see a proposal to merge it with the ABC being accepted by the multicultural lobby.

“I don’t think Mark Scott’s proposal would ever get community support within ethnic communities … Although their input into the running of SBS isn’t as strong as it was 20 years ago, they retain a lot of affection for it. I don’t think the community support would be there.” Another SBS insider put it thus: “the multicultural community would be aghast”. Perhaps because of this, politically there hasn’t been, in recent years, much interest in a merger. But that could change if politicians are convinced the savings are there to be had.

But supporters of SBS fear the culture clash. Ang says that while the ABC is keen to grow its audiences, it doesn’t have the commitment to diversity that SBS does. “It’s really an afterthought. Within the mainstream ABC culture, diversity is not embedded as a value. And that’s absolutely crucial.

“You can say SBS struggles as well, but it does have a history of commitment to these issues. And I doubt whether something like that can survive with an ABC-dominated merger.”

Aujard says any “merger” between the two organisations “would be a takeover by the ABC”. SBS has less than a fifth the budget of the ABC and is far smaller.

And as to the budget savings? Aujard can see ways a merger would lead to greater costs. He says SBS has a tradition of finding ways to do things more cheaply than the ABC — a merger could see this tradition lost. “[And] employees at SBS are paid a lot less than their counterparts at the ABC,” he adds. “You’d have to give 1000 or so people a pay increase.”

Nonetheless, Simons believes, despite many false starts, some merger within the two organisations is likely.

“I think it’ll probably happen incrementally, starting with back end,” she said. The recent Lewis Review into public broadcasting efficiencies recommended some back-end functions and office space be merged, though little has come of those proposals thus far. Any merger isn’t likely to yield huge savings, she says, except, perhaps in the area of broadcast transmission. “If they can begin to negotiate as a united force in transmission contracts, there could be big savings there.”

Peter Fray

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