SBS Managing Director James Taylor
SBS managing director James Taylor (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Sorry, Aunty, but SBS just kicked you out of the park.

The SBS Upfronts, when the SBS announces next year’s programming slate, was a vast affair held on a baking-hot, hazy Sydney Tuesday, for 500 guests from the overwhelmingly Anglo marketing and media-buying industries.

They gathered at The Cutaway in Barangaroo on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour, a modern cultural space cut into the sandstone rock, showing links to the First Nations’ land and the settlement that followed. Very SBS.

Journalists, marketers, production company executives, and funding bodies feasted on Lebanese cous-cous, spiced sweet potato with labneh and radicchio, rocket, pickled grapes and pomegranate dressing, which looked overwhelming lavish, but underscored that SBS Food will be the only free-to-air food network after soon seeing off 7food Network — to be dumped due to low ratings.

You have got to hand it to a low-funded public broadcaster that keeps beating commercial networks. The jewel in the crown — streaming service SBS On Demand — has 7 million registered users, or a 29.7% share of the broadcast video-on-demand market, beating Nine, Ten and Seven.

The preview of programming for 2020 succeeded on a number of levels where its commercial and public service rivals failed. It left me inspired by an excitement for Australia that Ten, Nine, Seven and the ABC, in their Upfronts presentations, failed to muster.

Youthful SBS managing director James Taylor, one year into the job, gave a terrific speech.

“No other media organisation explores and reflects modern Australia like SBS, telling stories otherwise untold and giving a voice to those often unheard,” he said.

In 2020, SBS would “continue to lead the way in helping all Australians better understand the benefits and opportunities of a more inclusive society” with “our boldest and most original offering” that will “go the core of what we stand for as an organisation, and who we are as a nation today”.

The fact that Taylor was one of the whitest people in the room was addressed head-on by Joel Creasey, host of Eurovision and Mardi Gras, who informed the crowd that Taylor’s mother was Italian born so his ethnic diversity was “macaroni and cheese”.

Taylor also took a sideswipe at the ABC, which has recently announced a diversity push, noting “a bit of noise recently” about diversity, and the benefits of “reflecting all Australians in their content and workplaces”.

But this was the “wrong conversation” as “diversity unharnessed is just a bunch of people who are different”.

Ouch. The Australian was excited enough to put the take-down on page 3 this morning, and followed it up with an editorial about how the two public service broadcasters stand in apposition to each other — showing the Oz is getting positive in its old age.

In truth, SBS has it easy compared with the ABC. Contrast the pressure on steady-as-she-goes Taylor ( groomed for the top job by predecessor Michael Ebeid) to his ABC counterpart David Anderson. When Anderson took over last year after the Michelle Guthrie fallout, it must have felt like the cleaner turning up after the credits roll in Reservoir Dogs.

Each year SBS looks more and more like the UK’s Channel 4, also government-owned but commercial-funded, with creatively rich dramas and provocative content.

Next year for SBS, Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton appears in documentary series The Beach — a tone poem set in his coastal shack where he cooks and scolds the chooks for shitting on the floor. Give that man the Gold Logie.

Author and journalist Jess Hill converts her domestic violence book See What You Made Me Do? into a documentary series. Meanwhile, Who Gets To Stay in Australia? has unprecedented access to immigration courts.

In First Wars, indigenous filmmaker Rachel Perkins presents a polemic on our whitewashed frontier conflicts. As the series says, “It’s important to ask why Australia can’t confront its past”. The preview ended with a provocative title caption. “Lest We Remember.” Take that, Andrew Bolt!

SBS is fresh off a drama high, with drama The Hunting its highest rating drama in history. Next year “epic revisionist western” New Gold Mountain (“think Deadwood”) will be the network’s first historical drama, telling the stories of the Chinese miners who came to Australia during the 1880s gold rush. It will be joined by the long-delayed Hungry Ghosts, a Vietnamsee supernatural ghost thriller set in Melbourne. And yes, The Handmaids Tale will be back.

But will enough Australians keep watching? The previous night, across town in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, Disney launched its streaming service Disney+.

SBS is upping its marketing budget to cope with the streaming invasion. But Disney+ roared to 10 million US subscribers in a day, so SBS will have to work very hard indeed to be any match.

Peter Fray

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