The ABC and SBS: A marriage that won’t happen

In early 2008, during the Camelot days of then-PM Kevin Rudd, SBS management floated the concept of rationalising its transmission and distribution service with the ABC. It was one of the thought bubbles to float out of Rudd’s 2020 “meeting of the minds” summit, but five years, two prime ministers and a lot of hot air about  fiscal responsibility later, nothing has happened.

And nothing will happen in 2013 if for no other reason than it is an election year.  It is also the year in which the national broadcasters’ triennial budgets will be renewed.

SBS currently receives around $220m a year from the government. The ABC’s  budget is around $1billion, including a bit more than $20m which it has been gifted in perpetuity to run Australia Network,  the country’s international television service.

The rationalisation strategy was interpreted at the time as a toe in the water by the SBS to test Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy’s response  to the broadcaster’s policy of in-program advertising. A  complete backroom merger would have saved more than $30m a year even if the broadcasters’ inderpendent editorial identities of were preserved.

A full-blown merger of the two broadcasters would have made a lot more financial and logistical sense. While there is little doubt that it would have been supported by the ABC’s then-chairman, Maurice Newman, it all proved too hard and the government looked to other areas for savings – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

But the fact is that the SBS, even with its ability to sell advertising spots, is a stand-alone luxury which the community simply cannot afford and, if the truth be known, doesn’t really want. The multi-cultural appeal of community and ethnic broadcasting in the late 1970s, when the SBS was created by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, was politically attractive and remained so for many years.

But Australian society and technology have changed dramatically since then. For example, the rapid development of internet-based digital services, which is confronting traditional media and posing a massive challenge to the SBS.  At the same time the large ethnic groups that were the target of Fraser’s immigration settlement initiative have been replaced by their English- speaking Australian-born children who are very much at home with advancing technologies.

In late 2008 Conroy announced a review of the ABC and SBS, pre-empting that last round of triennial budget discussions with the national broadcasters. While flagging support for some degree of backroom rationalisation Conroy’s review quickly focussed on the political issue of transparency in board appointments.

The reviews followed the release of a research paper by his senior media-policy adviser, Emma Dawson, on "the demise of SBS television”.  This discussion paper, prepared for the Democratic Audit research project at the Australian National University in Canberra, was scathing in its criticism of SBS management.  At the same time, Dawson also cast doubt on SBS’s ability to survive in the face of competition from digital, online and pay-TV services.  Dawson left Conroy’s office at the end of last year.

Meanwhile, there is guarded optimism in Conroy’s office that SBS Chairman Joe Skrzynski and Newman’s replacement, Jim Spigelman, former NSW Chief Justice and senior adviser to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, may be able to reach some kind of efficiency accord.

But while former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke was convinced that the SBS and ABC should be amalgamated, the current administration is clearly prepared to live with the cost of duplication, particularly in this election year.

It considers other communications issues, such at the sale of digital spectrum (on which Conroy has placed a $3b price tag already included in forward budget estimates) and the switch-off of analogue television broadcasting at the end of the year, as greater imperatives.

It also has to deal with the recommendations from two government-initiated inquiries into the role of the media. It may well prefer not to confront these controversial issues and aggravate its already tense relationship with the media in a pre-election environment.

That may be the government’s hope, but it is highly unlikely the media or Opposition will go along with that game.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Colless is a keen media watcher and regular contributor to Quadrant Online

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