SPECIAL BROADCASTING SERVICE
We live in a world dominated by audio-visual media: the media of the ‘now’. But the radio networks and the major television networks (ABC, Seven, Nine and Ten) still fail to deliver the multicultural reality (or history) of today’s society. By filling this gap, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) is a vital reminder to all Australians that we are part of a whole world.
The development of SBS over the past 37 years mirrors much of the story of modern Australia. Despite SBS’s humble beginnings, it came to play a major role in the development of Australia, and a vital role in modernising the idea of public service broadcasting. In 1975, before SBS, the Whitlam Labor government funded the opening of radio stations 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne. Their purpose was to disseminate information on government health policies to non-English speaking background (NESB) migrants in Australia.
Under the Fraser Coalition government, SBS was established in November 1977 as a statutory authority. Under the amended Broadcasting and Television Act 1942, it assumed responsibility for 2EA and 3EA to extend output to general radio programming. This followed extensive consultation and the establishment of both federal and state consultative bodies.
The scheduling principle for the growing range of radio programs in languages other than English was (and is) to provide time and placement in proportion to the size and/or needs of communities. This was not simply multilingual programming for NESB audiences: it was meant to assist Australia to become a successful multicultural society.
SBS Radio has never been accorded the same kind of public recognition as SBS Television. But it has always been that presence of a large group of volunteers, staff and contractors of NESB, which has underpinned the commitment and passion of SBS.
The Outside the Box research project report (2009) identified six key influences that shape our audio-visual media futures: people, content, funding, governance (including government), technology and environment. In the case of SBS Radio in the late 1970s, five of those six influences were positive: people (Australia’s growing multicultural mix) provided a demand for multilingual programming; multilingual content was vital for successful delivery of policy; government supported multiculturalism and the right structures were in place; radio was the perfect technology for the task; and the environment (the appropriate use of resources, domestically and globally) was a positive, as this was a new and socially valuable initiative using resources effectively. Only funding was scarce.
As the audience for SBS Radio grew, there was a greater push for the service to be offered on television as well. Between 1975 and 1980, extensive discussion by state and federal inquiries/ panels, boards, ethnic community associations and others showed much interest in the idea of multicultural television—and revealed how little the other broadcasters had done. But both funding and technology were issues—the latter due to the paucity of studio resources and an obligation to transmit on UHF.
SBS Television test transmissions began on the ABC in Sydney and Melbourne in April 1979, and Bruce Gyngell was appointed special consultant. ‘Channel 0/28’ commenced full-time programming on Channel 0/28 at 6.30 p.m. on 24 October 1980. Five years later, the network changed its name to SBS, began daytime transmissions and expanded to Brisbane, Adelaide, Newcastle, Wollongong and the Gold Coast.
To be accessible to every Australian, English was used as the common language for all television programs. For programs originating in languages other than English (LOTE), subtitles were to be used rather than dubbing. Along with the impact of internationally purchased programs, early Australian productions by SBS achieved real breakthroughs, with shows like Through Australian Eyes (1982), which took Australian school children back to the countries from which their parents had come, and Vox Populi (1986–95), a current affairs program in which participants spoke in their own languages. But Australian production, with its much higher cost than purchased programming, was able to provide only a minority of network content. SBS World News (1981– ) was a real drawcard, as was soccer. Food became a significant feature of SBS Television, and SBS began publishing an annual guide to ‘ethnic eating’ in 1992.
The Hawke Labor government was forced to relinquish a plan to amalgamate SBS with the ABC in 1986 after massive protests from ethnic community organisations. By the late 1980s, SBS Television was predominantly transmitting very high-quality programming in LOTE and in English, giving audiences the chance to understand the riches that multiculturalism was bringing to Australia. The SBS Radio and Television Youth Orchestra was established in 1988.
Neither the ABC nor the commercial broadcasters were making any sustained attempt to reflect Australia as it had become. The SBS board under Sir Nicholas Shehadie (1981–99) was active and supportive throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and endorsed the view that multiculturalism was broader than just ethnicity and included all areas of discrimination in society.
Successful local programs included First in Line (1989, Australia’s first weekly prime-time series developed by Indigenous Australians), The Book Show (1986–97), The Movie Show (1986–2004), Eat Carpet (1989–2005) and Face the Press (1990–93). News and current affairs programming extended to a daily current affairs program and a major weekly program, Dateline (1984– ) and, of course, World News. In 1988, Mary Kostakidis became the first female chief newsreader in Australia. The 1980s and 1990s saw a significant growth in sport, with an emphasis first on soccer and then also the Tour de France. All of these initiatives were intended to grow audience with content based firmly on the charter. People were encouraged to buy UHF aerials. The audience grew, with an average weekly reach of 1.74 million in 1990.
In June 1991, the Hawke government approved advertising for SBS Television and Radio under a new charter. It permitted five minutes of advertising/sponsorship per hour, but only between programs. In December, the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 officially made SBS a corporation. The new advertising regime provided funds to enable Australian production and the purchase of overseas program rights.
In 1992, after a major review, new SBS Radio schedules came into force: the number of languages covered on 2EA increased from 57 to 63, and on 3EA from 54 to 59. In 1994, a national SBS Radio network was launched, providing a greater service to Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin, as well as Sydney and Melbourne.
Also in 1994, SBS achieved the content-funding breakthrough it had been seeking: a means for the network to become involved in significant independent productions. Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy granted SBS $13 million over three years to invest in or commission independent productions for prime-time viewing. SBS Independent (SBSi), with a structure similar to that of Britain’s Channel 4, was established separately from the Television Division. Over the next decade, it was to be involved with the commissioning or joint funding of some of the truly significant programs of the age, winning a remarkable list of awards in the face of far bigger and better funded networks. All of these programs had a multicultural purpose, were quality productions and, in almost every case, had a focus on prime-time viewing.
In 2001, SBS digital television services commenced in the five mainland capitals. In 2003, SBS Radio launched new program schedules based on census statistics and community consultation. It ceased broadcasting in Gaelic, Welsh and Belarusian in order to free up space for new programs in Malay, Somali, Amharic and Nepalese. Living Black, which began in 2003 as a weekly Indigenous magazine program, is the only prime-time Indigenous current affairs program on Australian television; there is also a radio version.
Under chair Carla Zampatti (1999–2009), the board, management and staff completed a major restructure of television culminating in 2006 in the implementation of in-program advertising. This occurred at the same time as the Howard government appeared to start moving away from the idea of multiculturalism.
In 2002, the events surrounding the Tampa and the ‘Children Overboard’ affair led to increasingly negative federal government rhetoric about ‘boat people’ and ‘border protection’, and an ambiguous concern about Muslims—rhetoric that was widely evident from the ‘Cronulla riots’ onwards. Slowly, ‘multiculturalism’ began to fade from government priorities. The core role of SBS was now at some risk. If this shift in thinking became permanent, what strategic role would SBS have?
Joseph Skrzynski was appointed chair in 2009, and multiculturalism was re-emphasised as the centre of the corporation’s agenda. SBS Television was rebranded SBS One to coincide with the launch of a sister channel. SBS Two was originally designed to focus on Asia-Pacific specialty shows, international children’s programming and English learning programs, but in 2013 it was relaunched to appeal to a youth (16–39) audience. SBS bought a majority interest in World Movies, a pay television channel screening films from across the world in more than 70 languages. In 2010, it also took over the Foxtel arts channel, STUDIO. In 2012, National Indigenous Television (NITV) became part of SBS Television’s suite of channels.
In 2010, SBS Radio launched Chill, a world music digital radio channel, and PopAsia, offering mainstream Asian pop music for younger Chinese Australians; they were followed by PopDesi and PopAraby in 2012. The radio network has transitioned from a predominantly homeland news service to what has been called, since 2011–12, an ‘Australian Information Network’.
Another review of SBS Radio program schedules in 2013 increased the number of languages broadcast to 74, with the addition of Dinka, Hmong, Malayalam, Pashto, Swahili and Tigrinya. Each of the programs starts with news—Australian, international and homeland. SBS Radio now consists of Radio 1, Radio 2 and Radio 3, as well as Radio 4, which broadcasts the BBC World Service and special (often sporting) events. At the same time, SBS Online has built an increasingly strong presence delivering alternative viewing and listening times for a wide range of programming.
SBS has been central to the development of new talent, content and ideas. It has extended the viewing and listening options available to Australians and provided them with a clearer picture of their own society. It has put the ‘public’ back into public broadcasting, and at times been the envy of broadcasters all over the world. Small, flexible and passionate (at its best), it has harried or teased competitors and audiences into thinking about the realities of modern Australia.
REFs: I. Ang, G. Hawkins and Lamia Dabboussy, The SBS Story (2008); A. Lloyd James, R. Gibson, P. Bell, B. Goldsmith, H. Pattinson and A. Chandler, Outside the Box, http://otbresearch.com.au (2009).
ANDY LLOYD JAMES and BRIDGET GRIFFEN-FOLEY