A still from The Handmaid's Tale

SBS has emphasised its role as a multicultural broadcaster in its submission to the ACCC competitive neutrality inquiry, arguing it’s no competition to commercial media.

Australia’s second public broadcaster is the biggest target of the inquiry, having been heavily criticised by the commercial networks for competing for broadcast rights for programs including The Handmaid’s Tale. The inquiry was established as part of the government’s deal with One Nation to push through its media reform bill earlier this year.

In its submission, SBS argued that it was constrained by its charter — which the ABC has also claimed in its submission — from competing with commercial providers.

“In practice, SBS is actually operating at a significant competitive disadvantage in many aspects of its market dynamics,” it said.

SBS commissioned a Deloitte report that found that SBS had about 2% of the free to air advertising market, because of the restrictions it has on the minutes of advertising it can sell.

While SBS has been criticised by commercial players and its viewer lobby group Save Our SBS as being too similar to the free to air networks on its main TV channel, it said in its submission that 73% of the content on that channel was “culturally and linguistically diverse”.

In response to criticisms of SBS acquiring The Handmaid’s Tale, it said that a quarter of viewers who watched the show “went on to watch a language other than English drama, an SBS commissioned Australian series or an SBS current affairs program. This demonstrates that when SBS occasionally secures programs that develop popular appeal or a cult following, the larger public interest benefit served is that those audiences are exposed to other SBS programs”.

SBS also singled out Nine — whose CEO Hugh Marks has been especially critical of SBS acquiring commercial content — in putting its budget into context: “Nine Network will spend as much on two weeks of the Australian Open tennis in January 2020 as SBS will spend in the entire year to secure content for all of its four free-to-air channels and SBS On Demand.”

News Corp’s submission has now also been made public, echoing many of the complaints it has made previously: the ABC and SBS are unfairly advantaged over commercial competitors in their digital news offerings, as well as in broadcasting.

News Corp argued that ABC’s television news channel was going head-to-head with its Sky News (available on Foxtel) in providing news services out to tender, including bidding for the Qantas in-flight entertainment contract (which Sky won).

News Corp wants both the ABC and SBS charters to be reviewed, including that SBS’s charter be amended to require to take account of services provided by the commercial sector, and that both broadcasters be prohibited from promoting news content in commercial environments. The ABC’s use of Google ads to promote online articles is a continuing complaint of News Corp.

Streaming service Stan said in its submission that the ABC was “overlapping” with commercial broadcasters where it hadn’t previously, and commercial streaming businesses were now competing with SBS and ABC’s on-demand streaming services.

“In some cases these services are becoming more like ‘free’ versions of paid subscription services,” Stan said in its submission. “Stan faces competition in the Australian market from global SVOD services, commercial broadcasters and, increasingly, national broadcasters.”

Peter Fray

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