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Environment and Communications References Committee
Australian content on broadcast, radio and streaming services

AUJARD, Mr Steve, President, Save Our SBS Inc.

NG, Mr Matthew, Vice President, Save Our SBS Inc.


CHAIR: Information on parliamentary privilege and protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Thank you and welcome, gentlemen. Do you have an opening statement?

Mr Aujard : Yes, we do. Firstly, thank you for inviting us to this hearing. Save Our SBS is the national peak body for supporters, friends and consumers of SBS. Without a doubt the SBS charter requires Australian content, although it does not specify a quantity. Broadly we support SBS in their submission for Australian content. There are, however, differences between our submission and theirs. SBS asked that a quota of around 30 per cent fully funded Australian content apply in peak viewing for its main channel, whereas we said that in prime time a fully funded quota of first-run Australian content ought to commence at 30 per cent on the main channel and over time be increased to 55 per cent, so 55 per cent is the minimum regulated requirement of free-to-air commercial television. When we speak of increasing Australian content, the aim is to boost Australian drama especially and local documentaries, which SBS and Save Our SBS say need to be fully funded from the public purse not from advertising. We're not referring to news or sporting programs when we discuss Australian content; this is about Australian drama and documentaries.

Mr Ng : Here is where our submission differs somewhat from SBS's submission. In addition to mandating a quota of Australian content we also said that to balance SBS charter obligations there ought to be a dedicated SBS channel that is required to broadcast a very high content of LOTE—languages other than English—programs. Whilst our members and supporters want to see more Australian content on SBS, they do not want that to occur at the expense of LOTE content, which is already far too low for a multilingual broadcaster. Any keen viewer of SBS will have observed that since the advent of in-program commercial breaks on SBS back in late 2006 there are fewer and fewer foreign language programs, movies, TV serials, art and experimental programs and the like on all SBS channels and in prime time in particular. It is not uncommon for an entire night's viewing on SBS to have absolutely no LOTE content at all. This is far from the SBS that most people once knew. A good reason for regulating a set quota of LOTE content is to foster some key requirements contained in the SBS charter:

(e) as far as practicable, inform, educate and entertain Australians in their preferred languages …

Other sections in the charter require that SBS:

(c) promote understanding and acceptance of the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity of the Australian people; and

(d) contribute to the retention and continuing development of language and other cultural skills …

SBS Radio achieves this with its 70-odd languages around the clock. SBS television once fulfilled these charter obligations too but by and large LOTE content is not a ratings-winner, which is why there is little or no LOTE content in prime time on SBS television. Setting aside the daily news programs in other languages, there is not much LOTE content on SBS TV anyway. There is LOTE in SBS On Demand, but it is not always easy to locate and there are still many viewers, especially older viewers from various ethnicities, who prefer free-to-air viewing in their language which, as I said before, the charter requires. If there were an increase in Australian content on the main SBS channel without a requirement to increase LOTE content on another SBS channel, you can be pretty sure, based on experience of the past decade since the introduction of in-program commercial breaks to SBS, that LOTE content will slip further and further into the past. Despite there being a range of languages other than English spoken in the community, the commercial appeal was too low for SBS to want LOTE in prime time, therefore it needs to be set by a meaningful quota to give meaning to the charter.

Mr Aujard : SBS stated that they wanted Australian content to be fully funded, and so did we, but let's tease this out a bit. According to a 9 May 2006 statement issued by the then managing director of SBS, discussing government appropriations:

Every dollar spent by SBSi generates three times that amount in Australian film and television productions—

which means—

… more employment in the industry and a greater range of programs …

A return of three times that invested is pretty good. Three times—who could argue with that? That was 12 years ago. But it gets even better.

More recently we have the work that we cited, commissioned by Screen Producers Australia with the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, provided by PwC, that shows that increasing the producer offset from 20 per cent to 40 per cent would effectively stimulate the economy by a factor greater than six. Whilst recent data specific to SBS is lacking, tabulating the extent to which the economy would be stimulated by direct funding of Australian content commissioned by SBS, the evidence suggests it is at least three and more likely greater than six. We think it may be even higher, possibly up around 10. Whatever the figure, such stimulus and the resulting increased productivity is reason alone for government to fully fund SBS in lieu of advertising. This is aside from the cultural benefits of increasing Australian content on SBS.

In our submission, we outline the pitfalls of SBS carrying advertising and the way it has changed SBS since the introduction of in-program commercial breaks in late 2006. I don't intend to go over that ground right now other than to point out that we provide three options to remedy this. I'm happy to recap that and answer questions on that later.

That raises the question: why did the 1991 parliament allow SBS to take advertising anyway? To be clear, the only reason that advertising was introduced to SBS was to fund Australian content, and to the same level as commercial television. That was the rationale. To give you some context, that means that if Australian content were to now be fully funded—which is what we're recommending, and so is SBS—there would be no point in SBS carrying any advertising. Why would you want it anyway? Unfortunately, the advertising experiment has failed dismally to come anywhere close to the 30 per cent quotas SBS now want, let alone the 55 per cent quotas of commercial television.

On a special public broadcaster like SBS, with its charter obligations, advertising—at least in its current disruptive, highly-commercial format—is a very destructive policy and presents too many problems. By any measure, the policy has failed to achieve the outcome intended. Eighty-five per cent of SBS viewers nationally believe advertising should have no place on a public broadcaster anyway, while 95 per cent say that in-program commercial breaks on SBS impede their viewing experience. That brings us and SBS to the point where we now say, 'Just fully fund Australian content on SBS from the public purse.' The nation will be richer for it.

To take this one step further: although SBS advertising revenues have grown 123 per cent since the introduction of in-program commercial breaks in late 2006, Australian content has not. In fact, the SBS annual reports inform us that first-run Australian drama is only two per cent of SBS's schedule. That needs to be significantly increased, and it's never going to happen from advertising on SBS—never. No-one wants that anyway.

In our submission, we discuss the now-defunct independent commissioning arm of SBS—SBSi, or SBS independent, as it was then known. The abolition of SBSi, which occurred with the introduction of in-program commercial breaks, was like a nail in the coffin for independent Australian filmmakers. It was something really unique that distinguished SBS from all other broadcasters. SBSi fostered innovative forms of expression, which, by the way, is a charter requirement. Since its abolition, SBS has suffered. That's the consequence of SBS ramping up its commercial side.

It's absurd that, in the 21st century, funding for our national multicultural broadcaster is so woefully low that the best we can see is a mere two per cent of Australian drama on it. Other public broadcasters around the world do much better than this. Many have referred to the past decade or so as 'the golden years' of content. Unfortunately, it all but slipped by SBS. For the sake of a cohesive, well-functioning, safer society and to ensure social cohesion, it's about time government invested heavily in SBS with public funds in place of the destructive advertising model and all the problems it presents. It's a no-brainer. Let's not forget SBS is the Special Broadcasting Service. We need to treasure it, fund it and ensure that it is special. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you. You've obviously been very clear about not only wanting an increase of Australian content—and we've heard the very strong pitch for ensuring that that is funded out of the public purse as a public broadcaster—but also asking for some type of LOTE quota.

Mr Aujard : Yes.

CHAIR: Are you suggesting that that LOTE quota be of locally made content or that it be separate—it could be local or it could be international?

Mr Aujard : In our submission, we didn't specify whether it should be local or imported. For the sake of getting something like this going, we would imagine that initially a LOTE channel would probably be largely imported. But, if you look at SBS's charter, it does seem amazing that in the 21st century, given the number of cultures in Australia, we don't have a channel that can produce a lot of LOTE content for that channel. However, to answer your question more specifically in the here and now, if this were to come about, what we're really saying here is that, for the LOTE channel, we'd leave that up to SBS to figure out the mix of imported content and locally produced LOTE content. But the way SBS have approached programs that they've commissioned in the last decade or two is that they're generally in English but they will sometimes have a few scenes here and there in LOTE. That's probably what we're talking about when we're talking about either a 30 per cent or a 55 per cent Australian quota on the main SBS channel.

CHAIR: Correct me if I'm wrong, but what I'm hearing is that, if a local quota were introduced, you don't want that to consume or overtake a space that should be provided by LOTE content.

Mr Aujard : Yes. It would be ridiculous if we ended up with a channel that has a high Australian local content—most of which would presumably be in English apart from the occasional scene in another language—while LOTE content, just as Matthew said, slipped further and further into the background. Years and years ago, when there was analog television and there was only one TV station, we wouldn't be talking like this, because they'd simply be splitting the air time on the one channel. But these days, with multichannelling, it's no technical difficulty for SBS to simply fire up another free-to-air channel.

CHAIR: You would like a free-to-air channel that is predominantly or 100 per cent dedicated to LOTE content?

Mr Aujard : Yes. We didn't actually say 100 per cent. We went around and spoke to different people. The starting point probably was 100 per cent because, many years ago, it was close to 100 per cent; I don't think it was ever quite 100 per cent. So we arrived at the figure of 85 per cent, but it has to be significant. It has to be predominantly identified as a LOTE channel.

CHAIR: Yes. Just going back to Australian-made content, locally made content, whether it's in English or not, what role do you think SBS has in investing in creating local content that tells a story about multicultural Australia but is accessible to everybody?

Mr Aujard : That's a very interesting question. I guess the approach that SBS has taken in recent years is that, when they do commission, say, a local drama, it tends to be something that tells a story about a particular community, whatever it is. There are enormous cultural benefits in this, because not only does that community feel like it's included where otherwise it would be excluded from, say, one of the commercial broadcasters, or even the ABC for that matter, but it also enables other communities to get some insight into whatever that community is. Look at recent programs like, for example, Sunshine. That was a perfect example of that. That was something that told the story from the perspective of the South Sudanese, and it helped—I hate to be cliched—to break down barriers. That's a good thing. That's the sort of thing that helps to foster social cohesion and so on.

CHAIR: Which is an important role of SBS.

Mr Aujard : It's been in their mission statement, I think, for as long as I can remember. You can read it in their corporate plan. It's a key reason that it's there—social cohesion, inclusiveness and those sorts of things. Whatever it does on air, or anywhere else for that matter, it's always got to have that in the background.

CHAIR: It seems to me that there are shows such as Sunshine, or even Filthy Rich and Homeless, for example, that would never be shown on another channel.

Mr Aujard : You're right. There are a range of programs which would never make it to another broadcaster. Although, interestingly enough, sometimes there are programs on SBS which other broadcasters look at it and think, 'Why didn't we grab that one?'

Mr Ng : The Handmaid's Tale.

Mr Aujard : Yes, that's one of them. From what I understand, no-one was really interested in it, but now that it's got a bit of a cult following others are, of course, interested in it.

CHAIR: Yes. Can I ask you about your experience with, and what your view from Save Our SBS is on, SBS On Demand. Obviously things are changing in the broadcasting space. We can't just be talking about what we do in terms of free-to-air channels. We have to have an eye to where things are going, and streaming services and on-demand services are obviously becoming more and more prevalent. Is there a risk that if you push too hard for a LOTE channel, a broadcast channel, that you'll then miss being able to deliver what needs to be done for the future in terms of an on-demand service?

Mr Aujard : There's no risk as such. Free-to-air is mainly watched by older people. Younger people tend to watch streaming and on-demand, catch-up services and so on. There is a lot of LOTE content somewhere in SBS On Demand, but if I said to you, 'Show me where the LOTE button is, and then show me where the subcategories of the different languages are,' you won't find it. It's not there.

CHAIR: It's hard to find, is it?

Mr Aujard : If you happen to know the title, you can search for it, but it's not immediately obvious where it is. So that is a problem. We understood, from discussions with SBS—I think it was probably the November before last; I might be wrong in that date, but a couple of years ago anyway—that that was something SBS were addressing. I don't know if that's a funding issue, in terms of changing the way their app works, and it's the interface, or whether there was some other reason that got in the way; but that would help. But that alone is not enough. If we just said, 'Okay, we're going to make it more user-friendly, if you like, to find LOTE content on SBS On Demand,' which, by the way, is probably—just as an aside here—the most user-friendly of all of those types of apps that you have, at least in my opinion. But certainly, in terms of LOTE, you can't find it there easily. But, if they did get that right, that's still no reason to just forego free-to-air television.

CHAIR: ABC has noted there has been a significant take-up of ABC iView amongst the older demographic.

Mr Aujard : Yes.

CHAIR: Do you think that can happen with SBS On Demand? Are there language and cultural barriers that are splitting younger and older demographics, or has it just not been marketed to them?

Mr Aujard : It's a bit of both, but there is an added dimension to SBS On Demand. I'm not sure when—possibly a year ago—they changed the nature of it, but you now need to create an account with your email address and a password and then you sign in. We know from surveys we've done that that did put off a lot of people, and there is the added problem that each time SBS seem to upgrade their software you've got to re-enter your password. A lot of people don't know which email they used or what the username or password were, so they've got to look it up, and they'll give up or mean to come back to it later but don't. We've said to SBS, 'It's quite technically possible to create a guest account,' so that, if you are one of those people who either vehemently objects to giving away that private part of your information or you happen to be caught in the middle where you haven't got your username and password with you, you can still go in through a guest account.

CHAIR: What's SBS's reason for having to have an email address and postcode to enter?

Mr Aujard : When we read through their privacy policy and their terms and conditions for using the site—and I think this has changed since we last did our research—they did mention that that information would be useful to them in terms of targeting certain advertisers towards you, so it's a profile. If you have a logon, it means they can follow what your habits are. That's one reason. There is another reason—that is, it means that what you mark as a favourite when you're watching on one app is saved and appears in multiple apps. Unfortunately, the downfall is that that synchronises only phones and tablets; it doesn't synchronise to smart TVs. If you mark something as a favourite in your smart TV and then go and look in your app, even though it is the same account, you won't find it there.

I might mention that, in relation to the music industry before, not many people are aware that many, many years ago SBS had a youth orchestra. I don't know how that ties into some of that earlier discussion that you were having, but it's an interesting thing to ponder. This was to encourage younger people from a broad range of ethnicities to engage, and it was a really great thing.

Senator STERLE: They don't have it now?

Mr Aujard : They don't have it now, no.

Senator STERLE: It gave young people an opportunity to perform and get their performances on air and get to a broader audience.

Mr Aujard : Yes. Not everything went to air, of course. I think sometimes they did concerts. As I understand it, SBS provided the space. I don't think SBS gave them direct funding, but possibly indirectly supported them, and in exchange they could use the name SBS Youth Orchestra.

Senator STERLE: Over the years, there has been a lack of support for music regardless of what genre, which we're picking up loud and clear. When Mark Pope sat there and said, 'In the old days, we did it ourselves, and there was never any government support, and we didn't expect it,' now we reap what we sow, I suppose.

Mr Aujard : It does seem that there's a gap there and that maybe SBS could fill that now. I don't know if it's a funding issue that's stopping them or if it's just something they've not really talked about. Remember, this was many managements and boards ago that they had an SBS Youth Orchestra.

Senator STERLE: Good point.

CHAIR: I'd like to ask you about the importance of NITV and whether you have anything to add in relation to that. We're talking local Australian content; you can't get much more local and Australian than NITV, I imagine.

Mr Aujard : Absolutely. In our submission, we actually talked about Indigenous children's television and we talked about a fund being set up for public broadcasters to draw from specifically for children's television. Obviously, SBS is well placed for that, because it refers to Indigenous Australians in its charter. It's a critical part. NITV is I think the second-last of the multichannels in the sequence, in the order they took on, but don't forget that NITV existed for many years; it just wasn't seen on free to air nationally. I think it began as a community broadcaster many years ago. NITV is probably not funded to the level that it should be. These are very important stories, and a lot of the content on NITV is actually imported content anyway. That's obviously a funding issue. It definitely needs more money. It needs an injection into it.

CHAIR: What about children's and youth content? Is it lacking shows in terms of that?

Mr Aujard : SBS doesn't specifically have, even internally, an idea of what children's content should be across all of its channels, but I think there was something in their submission about funding SBS so that it could commission Indigenous children's television. I don't think there was any discussion about across-the-board children's television. I think you received submissions from one of the other interest groups about removing the quota of children's television.

CHAIR: That's what the commercial stations want, yes.

Mr Aujard : Yes. Regardless of whether that happens or not, but definitely if it does end up happening, that's got to go somewhere. You can't just deny children children's television. It's just wrong.

CHAIR: Australian-made children's television.

Mr Aujard : Absolutely. Australian children need to be able to see programs made in Australia that are suitable for them.

Mr Ng : In other than English.

CHAIR: And in languages other than English, yes.

Mr Aujard : Yes. There are a lot of languages spoken here. You'd think SBS is the perfect place for that to end up. This is not a reason to abolish quotas, by the way; we're just saying that, if that happens, this is an added reason.

CHAIR: Do you have anything else you'd like to finally add? We've covered most of what's in your submission, I think.

Mr Ng : I think we forget that SBS is a niche market; it's meant to be special. Hearing what the other participants said about triple j and how it has large content, it's for people aged about 18 to 35. Looking at how we can translate a specific part of Australia—multicultural Australia, but not just multicultural; together—and how we can use that, I see an issue: how we have languages other than English. Look at Netflix and how they have French TV, Korean dramas—all that sort of stuff—and we can translate that into English if we want to. We could do the same with SBS. I don't see why not. I don't see why it's so different and so hard. Twenty per cent of the population are multicultural Australians, people who speak something other than English.

Mr Aujard : In fact, we've recently had contact from one of the universities wanting to know why SBS does not have a choice of multiple-level languages on their On Demand service. Instead of just having English subtitles for the load content, why don't the English language programs provide multiple languages, like what appears on Netflix--I think it's a funding issue but I also think it's not high on the agenda of what people are talking about at SBS—but it's definitely a point.

CHAIR: If we're embracing on-demand technology and platforms, which is where it's going, that type of technology exists to be able to turn on those subtitles.

Mr Aujard : Yes. I don't think it can be done on free-to-air. We also mentioned in our submission about radio, too, just a little bit. SBS Radio does a fantastic job with its 70-odd languages. Unfortunately, we just don't get that representation on free-to-air. As you know, it's buried away somewhere in SBS On Demand. With the radio side of things, that needs a lot of funding put in too. We talked about the fact that the thing these days is that people, especially a lot of younger people, are listening to podcasts—downloading programs and listening to them—which are not broadcast necessarily on free-to-air radio. There's a place for SBS to be able to do that, but all these things cost money, of course.

Mr Ng : On locally produced content, I think we can do both. We can have languages other than English and Australian-made as well. If the government and public broadcasters are not speaking to minority groups like me, people from different backgrounds, then we don't hear anything. That's when things like social cohesion and terrorism come out. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and my parents are from a Malaysian/Chinese background, but I'm Australian, and I don't hear anything from the government or public broadcasting speaking to me. I listen to triple j and FBi—I love that—but there's nothing that speaks to me. That's an issue. When young multicultural Australians are not being spoken to, we create ghettos, we create us versus them, and that's a huge issue. SBS is there for that specific reason.

CHAIR: So you're saying we could be using that in a much more effective way.

Mr Ng : Yes, of course. It's about social cohesion. It's about reaching out to people of different backgrounds who are not normally spoken to.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, gentlemen. We appreciate your time. That concludes today's hearings. I'd like to thank all the witnesses for their informative presentations and I declare the hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 12:01