Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Michael Ebeid spoke to a full room about the future of SBS, simultaneously claiming that the broadcaster desperately needs more money from the next triennial round, and insisting that SBS is open for business right now. 

The very fact that Michael Ebeid, the CEO of SBS spoke at all is significant. Normally, the guidelines romp is left to the director of television – a position soon to be filled but open for the usual search. He provided a chance to reveal himself and his style to this audience, and add gravitas to the argument. 

He claimed that SBS has had a good year, with Immigration Nation and Go Back to Where You Came Fromclaiming the national debate, and the soccer and the Tour de France hooking its audience and providing those valuable changes for cross promotion. As Jane Roscoe, head of programming, said later, they provide the (fuzzily defined) impact which is the SBS metric beyond simple ratings. 

They are also expecting to do well with The Family, the fly-on-the wall format from the UK being tidied up by Shine for release at the end of November. Also before Xmas, reflecting the counter cyclic strategy SBS has always used over the holidays, Danger 5 will release the web-only prequel which will set the series up for its February release. That in turn reflects Ebeid’s determination to build more decent online content, and build it into the SBS broadcasting strategies. 

Behind Ebeid’s appearance is a ghost – the slouching monster of Pudding SBS, when it cheerily tried to broaden its base and build mainstream audiences. With garlic and silver stake, Michael stated firmly that “SBS really needs to understand who we are and what we stand for in this crowded marketplace. I will take you through what that means a little later. But also really focuses on our distinctiveness, and that is the key word we are really focusing on at the moment, how we stand out from the clutter.”

That is about core values, returning to charter, creating a distinctive identity as a multicultural broadcaster which reflects the realities of today’s Australia. Was this a narrowing of identity, which could exclude audiences?

“No, we need to be distinctive,” he said, “to be clear about who we are, so that all Australians can explore our multicultural world, our diverse world.”

Inside this framework, he delivered a fairly conventional rundown of the current guidelines, which have been clearly rethought to accommodate this new determination about core charter. As you can find on the website, the commissioning values are now to provoke debate, push boundaries, surprise audiences and inspire change. You would have to be mean to ask how soccer and cycling do any of these things, but the audience was too civilised to ask the question. 

What did come out, which was slightly uncivilised, was the cancellation of Dusty, because SBS simply could not afford to mount the production. Developed for some years, completely supported by the broadcaster, it was abandoned in favour of plugging a budget hole created by the downturn in advertising, and a shorter drama production. Sue Masters, the producer, pointed out that the cancellation was unexpected and heartbreaking – she had lined up five different partners, and had the show fully financed. While she said it came from nowhere, Ebeid glanced down and said that his understanding was that she had been given some warning.

But the story does illustrate the direness of the financial situation. Ebeid pointed out that the current triennial negotiations are crucial, and called for the industry support he must know privately is forthcoming. 

SBS may be close to broke now, but Ebeid is still planning for the future. “We are still a major network, which reaches over eight million people each week,” he said. “There are talented people at SBS who will work with you to create high quality content with great results.

“We are still actively commissioning in all genres. We still have sizeable budgets next year, and the year after. That money has not gone away.

“While we take a temporary pause in commissioning exciting Australian drama, we still want to continue to develop one or two of our short drama works that are on the radar at the moment.”

They are still looking for comedy talent, are building on the food strand, are looking for cross-platform and online-only projects, and want a major light entertainment series to showcase new multicultural talent.

If they get their triennial bid, they expect to treble the amount of Australian content on SBS. We know you would like that.

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