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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
28/02/2017
Estimates
COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

Special Broadcasting Service Corporation

[12:02]

CHAIR: Mr Ebeid, welcome back. Thank you for accommodating our changed schedule.

Mr Ebeid : It was completely my pleasure. Welcome back to you too, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, it is wonderful to be back. It is certainly entertaining and interesting. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Ebeid : I would. Thank you, Chair. Firstly, can I just acknowledge the government's recent appointment of Dr Hass Dellal as our new chairman. We think it is a fantastic that he has been appointed to that important role. Dr Hass Dellal has already made an enormous contribution over his last six years on the board, as deputy chair, and has done a tremendous job. His links into the multicultural communities have been invaluable to the organisation. We look forward to working with him and the two new non-executive directors, George Savvides and Sally Walker, that were announced yesterday. We look forward to working with them as well.

SBS is off to a great start this year after what was a very successful 2016 for us. We are continuing to make a real impact, both with comment, speaking a lot more to the very heart of our charter, and also our continued audience growth, in reach and share across all our platforms and services. We are bucking the declining television trend at the moment. We are now reaching 14 million TV viewers a month. That is up from about 11.5 million just five years ago. Our growing SBS On Demand library now has more than 6,000 hours of content, and 80 per cent of our movies are in language. That streaming service is a fantastic service for Australians to access movies of their language choice at a time that suits them. Indeed, in the month of January we had our highest ever usage, with 17 million views.

Radio of course is the heart of SBS's charter, with our 70 language programs that speak to the 5 million who speak a language other than English and, importantly, of course we serve the million Australians who do not speak English all. We are seeing record growth there as well, with over a million podcasts downloaded and 2.3 million visitors to our language websites in the month of January alone. Our recently launched migrant Settlement Guide, in which our radio programs broadcast topics around settling into Australia and Australian culture and values, which aims to decode life here for new migrants, is continuing to receive an excellent response from both the communities and settlement organisations.

Finally, the SBS board held its first community forum after our first board meeting last week. It went very well. It was hosted by Jenny Brockie and we covered a range of topics. It was a great opportunity for both the board and the executive to engage with members of our diverse communities, which we are here to serve. I look forward to your questions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, and congratulations on your new board and on your successes over the last 12 months. Well done. Senator Dastyari.

Senator DASTYARI: I want to start with the minister. As you know, from time to time a proposal gets floated from different people regarding a merger of SBS and the ABC. It is not a new idea. It gets floated all the time. The government's position remains the same on that?

Senator Fifield: Yes. There are no plans to alter the status quo.

Senator DASTYARI: Is it fair to say there are both no plans and no intention?

Senator Fifield: I think it is the same. There are no plans and I am not intending anything.

Senator DASTYARI: Obviously again you are going through the process at the moment regarding the future of SBS funding. There is an issue regarding decisions that the Senate has made about advertising. We have been through this at previous estimates. Where exactly is SBS at in terms of the funding cycle—in terms of how the cycle works?

Senator Fifield: SBS has triennial funding, as does the ABC. As you have pointed out, we desired to legislate to give SBS some more freedom in terms of accepting advertising.

Senator DASTYARI: It was a separate debate that just happened in the chamber.

Senator Fifield: That is right. I will ask Mr Ebeid to talk more specifically about SBS's budget and where it is at.

Mr Ebeid : Is there a specific question?

Senator DASTYARI: The more specific question was: where are we at in terms of the triennial funding process, how many years are left to go and where are we in terms of negotiations about the future?

Mr Ebeid : We are currently halfway through the last triennial and we would expect to begin talks with the government at the end of the year for the following year. As you pointed out, the only item that is outstanding with our budget at the moment is the funding that was removed from our budgets as a result of the failed legislation for the advertising flexibility bill, and my understanding is that the government is in the middle of considering that funding in that light.

Senator DASTYARI: Up until July this year you were given additional funding to make up for that. Is that correct?

Mr Ebeid : Yes. In the last May budget we were given replacement funding, if you like, for this current financial year from 1 July to 30 June. That funding runs out on 30 June and then we have a hole that will begin on 1 July, which I am hoping will be addressed in the May budget.

Senator DASTYARI: Minister, is whether there will be additional funding to fix that hole a matter for the May budget? We will have a future estimates to talk about that.

Senator Fifield: Or whether legislation passes.

Senator DASTYARI: We do not even have it; you have not introduced it again. Minister, I want to draw your attention to a matter regarding SBS that we discussed at the Senate estimates about two years ago, I believe. This was prior to your time as minister. I believe the minister at the table may have been Senator Fierrevanti-Wells, but I could be wrong about that. It was regarding SBS being given access to or having a better partnership with the security agencies in terms of how it does the deradicalisation work. Minister, I was wondering if you were aware of any of these kinds of conversations. I understand the security agencies do an amazing job. It just struck me as a little bit odd when you have a public broadcaster which has the ability to target certain communities very effectively and has the resources to be able to target these groups effectively kind of being in a silo of government away from the security agencies. I do not think there is ill intent; I think it just how government sometimes works. I was wondering if you can take that on notice and provide a few words on it.

Senator Fifield: I will take it on notice. I will see if Mr Ebeid wants to add something or if he wants to take it on notice too.

Mr Ebeid : I do recall a question a couple of years ago. I think SBS does have a unique link into those communities that we often need to talk to—

CHAIR: Sorry Mr Ebeid. There are a lot of side conversations going and I cannot actually hear Mr Ebeid. Could Senators take their conversations outside? Thank you, please continue.

Mr Ebeid : SBS does have unique access to hard-to-reach communities from that perspective, so SBS does stand ready to work with various government agencies in terms of communicating some of those key messages around the topics that you mentioned, Senator. We would welcome the opportunity to engage more with some of the agencies and help where we can.

Senator DASTYARI: Again, without divulging information that would be inappropriate for you to divulge, is there an existing relationship between SBS and the security agencies or the agencies focusing more on the area of deradicalisation? Is there a formal dialogue? Is there a formal relationship that already exists, or is that an area that needs to be developed?

Mr Ebeid : The latter. I think we do not have the sorts of relationships that you are talking about. I think we would welcome the opportunity. We have not developed them at the moment, but it is an opportunity for us.

Senator DASTYARI: Minister, are you able to take on notice—

CHAIR: Sorry, Senator Dastyari, your time has finished.

Senator DASTYARI: Just one on notice?

CHAIR: Very, very quickly.

Senator DASTYARI: Minister, are you able to take on notice, perhaps, facilitating those meetings between SBS and the security agencies, and let us know at the next estimates how it has gone?

Senator Fifield: Sure.

Senator DI NATALE: My dad wants me to pass on congratulations for the continued high standard of programming. It is rusted on in the Di Natale household.

Mr Ebeid : Thank you, Senator.

Senator DI NATALE: SBS is a constant feature, much to my mum's chagrin sometimes.

Mr Ebeid : Your father is a wise man!

Senator DI NATALE: Can I ask you a few questions about the $53.7 million budget cut. Can you tell me how that has impacted on programming at SBS?

Mr Ebeid : Almost $54 million was divided. Up to $28½ million was earmarked as being part of the advertising flexibility bill. As you just heard in the last round of questions, that bill obviously failed in the Senate. It is still government policy, to my understanding, so it is up to the government now as to whether they put that bill back up or have an adjustment in the May budget. The other $25 million of cuts were rolled out throughout the organisation. We had been working on a whole series of efficiency savings and measures at the time of the efficiency review. We were hoping to be able to reinvest a fair bit of that money from the initiatives and savings programs we had in place back into content, but as a result of the cut a lot of that went back to the government to make up the budget cuts. We did reduce a little bit in terms of our content spend.

Senator DI NATALE: By how much?

Mr Ebeid : A large percentage of it came from back office savings and efficiencies in suppliers. We renegotiated a lot of our key contracts with Broadcast Australia, Optus, Telstra and other key suppliers like that. That $25 million was predominantly out of back office savings.

Senator DI NATALE: You said there was some programming that was cut. How much?

Mr Ebeid : I did, actually, and I apologise. That $25 million was all taken out of efficiency savings from back office. I apologise.

Senator DI NATALE: So you had the two lots, the 25 and the 28, I think you mentioned?

Mr Ebeid : That is right.

Senator DI NATALE: The 25, you are saying, was all efficiency—

Mr Ebeid : That is correct.

Senator DI NATALE: savings. In terms of staff numbers, what does that translate to—a reduction in staff?

Mr Ebeid : We did not have any actual redundancy programs as some of the other agencies did. We did it mostly in terms of supplier agreements, renegotiations of contracts. I will have to come back to you. I know there were some parts of the business that did have some headcount reductions, but it was minimal. But I will get the exact number for you.

Senator DI NATALE: All right. You can take that on notice. Just in terms of the programming, you said you were planning on a range of investing into new programming, and you cannot do that now because of the $28 million.

Mr Ebeid : That is right.

Senator DI NATALE: Did you have plans drawn up as to what that programming would look like?

Mr Ebeid : Yes. Unfortunately, because of the size of our budget—the modest budgets that we have—our schedule is roughly eight to nine per cent Australian content, and the rest is acquired content from overseas. Obviously, acquired content is 10 to 15 times cheaper than making a program ourselves. We were very keen at the time to lift our Australian content levels up to a higher number than the eight or nine per cent that we have today. We were targeting to try to get that to about 14 or 15 per cent. That is obviously a difficult thing for us to do now because we do not have sufficient funding. Making our own Australian content is a very expensive proposition. So we remain at the current levels.

Senator DI NATALE: It is fair to say then that, if you are operating on the eight or nine per cent and you had $28 million that you could not spend on programming, eight or nine per cent of that would have been Australian content, so we are talking about roughly $3 million, but you are saying that you were hoping to increase that to 15 per cent.

Mr Ebeid : That is right.

Senator DI NATALE: So there is somewhere between $3 million and $4 million in Australian content that cannot be made as a result of that cut?

Mr Ebeid : It would probably be closer to $5 million. We would have reinvested $5 million.

Senator DI NATALE: So there is $5 million of Australian programming that cannot go ahead now as a result of not having that $28 million?

Mr Ebeid : From 2014-15, that is right, yes.

Senator DI NATALE: Sorry—that could not proceed at that time.

Mr Ebeid : That is right.

Senator DI NATALE: Let me just go to the SBS racism campaign Face Up to Racism. Why have you decided to put that particular campaign on at this time? What is the genesis of that?

Mr Ebeid : In terms of the documentaries that we did?

Senator DI NATALE: Yes. I think you have—what—three docos?

Mr Ebeid : You are talking about the documentaries, not the marketing? You said 'campaign'.

Senator DI NATALE: Sorry, yes, the documentaries, which I imagine are part of a broader racism campaign.

Mr Ebeid : It was really off the back of some research that we were doing with the University of Western Sydney that really showed that we are seeing an increase in racism and discrimination against LGBT people, people of ethnic backgrounds, Indigenous Australians—we are seeing an increase at the moment—and we thought that we did need to focus some of our documentaries around this issue, which is why our marketing campaign was all around the 'face up to'. Some of the stats were quite alarming to us. Twenty per cent of the 6½ thousand people that we surveyed said that they had experienced racism in the last 12 months. That was really, I guess, one of the key drivers behind why we had a series. We put together three documentaries around the science of racism, racism in dating, and a question: is Australia racist?

Senator DI NATALE: Do you attribute that rise in racism to anything in particular? Is the political environment at the moment a factor?

Mr Ebeid : I think it would contribute. I think it would definitely be contributing to that. There is no doubt about that.

Senator DI NATALE: Let me ask a last question—the very last.

CHAIR: We have gone over time, and I will have to take it out of the other time.

Senator DI NATALE: One of the people involved in one of those documentaries is Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Mr Ebeid : That is correct.

Senator DI NATALE: Have you had any criticism or indeed any direct approach from any parties to challenge her role as part of that series?

Mr Ebeid : Not to my knowledge. Not at all.

Senator DI NATALE: Thank you.

Senator McCARTHY: Hello, Mr Ebeid. It is lovely to see you and all the SBS and NITV staff here recently. I have a few questions, and I am conscious of time, so, if there is anything that you feel you need to take on notice, just let me know. Mr Ebeid, what degree of autonomy is afforded NITV?

Mr Ebeid : NITV is afforded a lot of autonomy. We have set up the channel to be completely autonomous in terms of its editorial control. As you know, the channel is run by Tanya Orman, an Indigenous woman. Indeed, 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the staff who work on NITV are of Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. When we set up the channel, it was very important to us—and we communicated to the communities—that we would always ensure that the channel was run by Indigenous people for Indigenous people. But one of the things that the channel does have to do is, obviously, work within our SBS codes of practice and codes of guidelines around editorial control in terms of being impartial, fair and all the things that make up our codes. That is important, because NITV is a public broadcaster and it needs to have those disciplines as well.

Senator McCARTHY: Do you see it as being broader than just for Indigenous viewers in terms of race relations in Australia?

Mr Ebeid : Absolutely; I think NITV, increasingly, has a bigger portion of non-Indigenous viewers, and that is growing. I think it plays a very big role in helping reconciliation in this country, because it is an opportunity for Indigenous stories and cultures to be told to a broader, free-to-air market right across Australia. Again, going back to Senator Di Natale's question, we know from our research that six out of 10 Australians do not have any contact with Indigenous people. To have that window into an Indigenous culture through free-to-air television is incredibly important for Australia, to help with reconciliation.

Senator McCARTHY: How much of the SBS budget goes towards NITV?

Mr Ebeid : When NITV came into SBS in 2012, the budget—I will get the exact figure—was somewhere between $16 million and $17 million. That has gone up with normal government CPI over the last few years. What I am pleased to report to the committee is that, when NITV came into SBS—obviously, it used to be a separate organisation—we were able to save a lot of back office savings and operational costs. Of that $17 million, we were able to free up $4 million of money that had been spent on administration and which has now gone right into content. We have been able to more than double the channel's content budget because of the fact that it is now part of SBS.

Senator McCARTHY: You spoke about the 75 per cent to 80 per cent of staff—could you just explain to the committee how it is broken down in terms of the departments within NITV, for example, with news, current affairs and documentaries? Would you be able to explain that?

Mr Ebeid : Again, maybe I will take that one on notice. I can get the exact breakdown of the groups, but it there is a what we call INACA, an Indigenous news and current affairs team—a production team for all of its productions, whether it be sports productions, documentaries, children's content, et cetera. You then have an online team, a small group in management, some marketing—I think there is one head in marketing—one head for government relations, et cetera, which is increasingly important—

Senator McCARTHY: Would you like to take that question on notice?

CHAIR: I thought that was a good one to take on notice.

Mr Ebeid : Yes—happy to.

CHAIR: Now, you have two minutes left, and I understood that Senator Chisholm was going to—

Senator McCARTHY: Senator Chisholm—yes. Just in terms of the audience reach of NITV—how is this measured?

Mr Ebeid : Audience reach is measured through the Nielsen ratings that we have for the whole industry. Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages that NITV has is the ratings boxes that we have around the country. We have no rating boxes in the Northern Territory and the Top End. I think it is fair to say that the channel is under-represented in the reach and audience share figures, and we know that. We also take a close look at the online results, and NITV has seen significant increase in our online INACA and on-demand viewing, which is fantastic and that is something that we can measure ourselves. In terms of the TV audiences, we really do not look at it from that perspective because we know it is under-represented.

CHAIR: You have actually just gone over your five minutes. I will come back to senators if there is time. I will go now to Senator Leyonhelm, and you have five minutes.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Good afternoon, Mr Ebeid. I heard your comments in relation to the first community forum and I note that you regarded it as a positive experience.

Mr Ebeid : Yes. For the last 5½ or six years that I have been managing director we hold community forums on a regular basis. We have probably been doing, on average, about three a year over the last few years, so we do that regularly. The only change that we have done now is incorporated as part of the board meeting, as was agreed with the government recently, so there are always positive experiences because it is an opportunity for us to engage with the community and the audiences that we are there to serve. So it is good.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Were you previously intending to conduct any in regional areas?

Mr Ebeid : We have done in the past. We do usually try to do one a year. The last one we did was in Tasmania. We have done them before in Canberra and in Tasmania. We did one in Alice Springs two years ago. We do them regularly, Senator.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Where will the next one occur?

Mr Ebeid : We are actually just in the middle of looking at that. It will most likely be either Mildura or Albury-Wodonga. We have not concluded that yet.

Senator LEYONHJELM: I think the plan is two in regional areas per year, is that right?

Mr Ebeid : Yes, we have been in contact with the minister's office on that. We were asked to do one every second board meeting. We have six board meetings a year, which means three of the forums straight after the board meeting. Given our audience base where our multicultural community leaders are, which are mainly in the cities, this year, because of the way the board meetings were set, we are going to do two in metro and one in regional, and then next year we are going to do two in regional and one in metro.

Senator LEYONHJELM: I understand, okay. Considering how positive you regard them, is there any possibility you might conduct more than the minister has asked you to conduct?

Mr Ebeid : I am pleased to say that we already are doing more than the three. We actually have one planned for Perth in a couple of months. We did one late last year in Brisbane. As I said at the outset, we do these regularly but, in terms of the formalities of doing them with the board straight after a board meeting, that is what I meant by those three. Outside of those board environments we will be doing more than that as we have done for the last many years.

Senator LEYONHJELM: I have been following and watching your 6.30 news each evening for many years.

Mr Ebeid : Good to hear.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes, I like it. But there is an aspect about it that I want to draw to your attention and you might want to comment on it or ignore me. In the period between the US election and the inauguration of President Trump and since then—let me make it plain that I would not have voted for Mr Trump had I had the choice—I do not think I have seen a news session at 6.30 pm where there has not been an item on Mr Trump which is either overtly negative, critical, or by implication critical. I do not think I can remember ever having seen a segment that has had anything positive to say about him. Now he is not my favourite politician by a long way but I just wonder if he is so bad as the news would suggest. I am just wondering whether you have any thoughts on that.

Mr Ebeid : I will take your comment as a comment. I am happy to have a look at it. I dare say that many senators in the United States would be saying the same about the media at the moment and looking for something positive to report on. I would have to go back and look at our coverage to see what sorts of stories there are. I have not notice that myself, but I am happy to have a look at it.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Chisholm.

Senator CHISHOLM: Mr Ebeid, I am interested in the programming on NITV and the Marngrook Footy Show. How would you describe that? Has that been one of the more successful NITV programs?

Mr Ebeid : Yes, I think it is safe to say that it is one of the most successful programs on NITV.

Senator CHISHOLM: Did it start small and build an audience over time?

Mr Ebeid : Yes, that is fair to say.

Senator CHISHOLM: I was just interested in a new program, League Nation Live, that started last year, which was basically a similar show but focused on rugby league. How would you describe the start-up of that program?

Mr Ebeid : I think it struggled to get an audience, from what I understand. It was always done as a pilot trial show because we actually did not have the funding to keep it ongoing. We did that as a trial to see if we could get enough sponsorship to make it work, but we did not get enough.

Senator CHISHOLM: Would it be fair to compare the first year of League Nation Live to the initial stages of the Marngrook Footy Show in terms of building an audience?

Mr Ebeid : I could not compare it because when Marngrook first started it actually started on the ABC, so it had several years of building up before it got to us.

Senator CHISHOLM: It started initially on NITV then went to ABC then came back.

Mr Ebeid : That is correct.

Senator CHISHOLM: A decision was taken late last year to cancel League Nation Live, which is my understanding?

Mr Ebeid : That is correct.

Senator CHISHOLM: What was the basis of that decision?

Mr Ebeid : Funding. As I said, we always did it as a trial to see if we could get it up and get an audience for it. At the same time we were hoping to get enough sponsorship dollars to keep it going. Without sponsorship dollars for programs like that it is very difficult. We hoped the NRL, for example, would have come to the party, but they did not. That is a shame because I think it could have kept going, but we did not have enough money when you looked at all the other things that we wanted to do with, for example, children's content, et cetera, to spread the budget to keep that going as well. I think we gave it a good crack in terms of both getting an audience and getting sponsorship for it and it did not work out. Often it is often the case with television that some programs work out and some do not.

Senator CHISHOLM: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Ebeid, for appearing today. I now suspend this hearing for the lunch break.

Proceedings suspended from 12:32 to 13:32