The SBS’s supporters group Save Our SBS has joined criticism from commercial broadcasters of Australia’s second public broadcaster as too commercial.

In a submission to the competitive neutrality inquiry, Save Our SBS has called for the “de-commercialisation” of SBS, and more focus on the broadcaster’s original charter requirements — in particular, more multilingual content.

Save Our SBS has been critical of legislative changes that allow in-program advertisements, which it credits with more commercial-looking content on the TV channels. Save Our SBS president Steve Aujard said: 

“Before on-screen watermarks, it was always possible to tell if a television set was tuned to SBS because its programming looked inherently different from the ABC and commercial television. That’s no longer the case. Since the introduction of in-program advertising a little more than a decade ago, SBS presents itself — advertisements and programs — like a commercial broadcaster. These days, a lot of content is similar.”

Aujard said there was a clear link between in-program advertising and more commercial content. SBS has been criticised by the commercial broadcasters for outbidding for broadcast rights on programs including The Handmaid’s Tale.

In its submission, Save Our SBS recommended the removal of all advertising on the network, but, as a second option, to remove in-program advertising. It has also recommended a number of governance changes, including publishing SBS board minutes within 90 days of meetings.

On Friday, the ABC submitted its submission to the review, arguing that the complaints that inspired the review — that the ABC is “unfair competition” — are unfounded.

In a statement about the submission, managing director Michelle Guthrie said any restrictions on the ABC would be bad for audiences.

“Far from disadvantaging commercial media, the evidence shows the ABC has a positive influence on the broader media sector, including in its focus on innovation and its ability to serve as a launchpad for ideas and fresh talent,” she said. “Any move to curtail the ABC’s activities would serve only to punish Australian audiences who trust and value us.”

The review was first announced as part of the government’s negotiations with One Nation to get its media reform bill through last year. Free TV and Nine had been calling for the government to bring the SBS back into line with its original charter, away from bidding for TV content that could be shown on the commercial networks.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey