We haven’t heard the last of merging SBS and the ABC. In two weeks, Mark Scott will front the National Press Club in what will probably be his final big speech before he steps down in May. The topic is likely to come up.
One issue that complicates any discussion of a merger is what to do about SBS’ ads. When he spoke to the Press Club on the topic in 2014, former SBS chairman Joe Skrzynski said the commercial networks would throw a fit if the ABC took over SBS’ advertising. Still, there is another option, which is the ABC taking over SBS and turning it ad-free. Veteran media journalist Meg Simons says that most would admit advertising on SBS was ”a mistake”. A merger — or, indeed, an ABC-led takeover — that would make SBS ad-free could be a chance to turn the clock back on that. An ad-free SBS could be welcomed by all sorts of people, from the commercial networks who don’t like the competition for revenue to the journalists who are uncomfortable with SBS’ commercial direction and the subsequent focus on ratings to community groups who fear it dilutes the broadcaster’s commitment to its charter. Of course, no ads on SBS could eat up many of the financial benefits of a merger, at least in the short term.
Now that SBS is down a chairman, the government has the opportunity to nudge the possibility of a merger one way or another. A chairman open to more integration with the ABC could kick the process off.
And some have suggested using SBS for another purpose altogether. Save our SBS’ Steve Aujard says SBS’ foreign language programming is very popular in parts of Asia. The ABC has a charter obligation to be an international broadcaster, but given it’s already broadcasting in international languages, Aujard reckons SBS might be able to do the job as well if not better.