For a TV and radio network a quarter of the size of free to air rivals Nine and Seven, SBS certainly gets under the skin of the bigger players. Remember how in 2017 Hugh Marks, Nine Entertainment’s CEO, was moaning about SBS? As was his Seven counterpart, Tim Worner, who took time out of dealing with Amber Harrison and rising cost and debt pressures to whine mightily about our public broadcasters.

“It is clear they are now chasing the same programs and audience as us. They are not playing the distinct and special role set out for them in legislation. In particular the steadily growing amount of UK and US content on SBS does not seem consistent with its multicultural objectives,” Worner told The Australian. Marks said Nine was increasingly finding itself going head to head with SBS for content, which is raising prices.

Worner and Marks were cranky about SBS buying and broadcasting (or streaming) programs such as Fargo, Roots, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Good Fight, Outlander and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, while its multichannels have aired Uncle Buck, The Brothers, Scarface, 8 Mile, Purple Rain and Batman repeats.

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Now, 15 or so months later, the whining has been escalated to Seven’s outpost Free TV Australia — chaired by former Seven West Media director, Harold Mitchell and run by Bridget Fair, Seven West’s former chief lobbyist in Canberra. In a statement on Friday, Free TV Australia revealed the contents of its sorry submission to what the Turnbull government has laughingly called the Competitive Neutrality Inquiry Panel (which is really a “neuter the ABC and SBS inquiry”). It’s a whine of truly mammoth proportions and typical of the lobbyist approach to media affairs in this country:

Free TV Chairman Harold Mitchell AC commented: ‘Like most Australians, we value our national broadcasters. They have an important role in our media landscape.However, over the last five years SBS TV has moved away from its principal role as a multicultural broadcaster. Much of its programming is now indistinguishable from the existing commercial networks.’

Free TV CEO Bridget Fair said ‘independent analysis has confirmed that of the top 150 shows across SBS One, SBS VICELAND and SBS Food Network, over 55 per cent was commercial content unaligned with their Charter. We need less Brooklyn Nine Nine and Batman and more Eurovision and Kabul Kitchen…’

The statement also said that “Under the model proposed by Free TV, a new requirement would be introduced for SBS to take account of the services provided by the commercial sector — mirroring the requirement that already applies to the ABC.” 

But for Seven and Nine, the free to air model has already shown itself to be broken — by managerial and boardroom incompetence. Ten network collapsed last year and was snatched from the Murdoch family’s maw by CBS. Seven West Media is slashing costs by $125 million over two years, has dropped its dividend and committed itself to reducing debt to at least $650 million by June 30, from $711 million at the end of 2017. And Nine Network survived a near death experience several years ago when it was bailed out and recapitalised by two US hedge funds (no local investors were interested).

Fair and Mitchell are doing the bidding of billionaire Kerry Stokes, who controls Seven. CBS controls Ten, billionaire Bruce Gordon controls WIN, 14.9% of Nine and has the biggest stake in Seven regional affiliate Prime. Only Southern Cross Austero could be described as truly independent in terms of the Australian broadcast media. 

You have to ask why these commercial organisations with more money than SBS are complaining about being outbid by a state-owned broadcaster. Perhaps the real story is that the commercials are dud programmers and blame SBS for their incompetence when SBS buys the rights to programs other networks reject or incorrectly think that Australians won’t be interested in.

It is clear the commercial networks have all but lost their programming skills — that’s especially clear at a time when their programming successes are lazily made expensive reality programs like House Rules, My Kitchen Rules, Masterchef and The Block. The digital multi-channels of the networks  (7mate, 7TWO, Go, 7flix, 9Life, Gem, ONE and Eleven) carry a schedule of repeats of repeats (how many times has Inspector Morse been repeated on 7TWO?) and old programs from UK and US TV along with tired old lightweight favourites that get flicked from network to network.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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