Dr Rhonda Jolly
Bonus for the public broadcasters
Australia’s public broadcasters have suffered a decline in real funding for many years. In response, both the ABC and SBS have resorted to a number of compensatory actions. These have included the controversial outsourcing of programming, and for SBS, the inclusion of in-program advertising.
Prior to this Budget it was suggested by one commentator, that such austerity measures were insufficient and that the ABC at least should be directed to find Budget cuts—reducing the number of television and radio stations and websites it operates—to force it to concentrate on its ‘core purpose’. It has been argued in opposition to this view, however, that both broadcasters have been struggling to deliver on their charter obligations as a result of financial constraints. This was particularly the case for SBS, with media analyst Margaret Simons observing that the second public broadcaster was ‘at a turning point in its history. It has never been so neglected by government or so strapped for cash’.
SBS supporters lobbied the Government intensely before the Budget; the Save our SBS group encouraging people to send nearly 10 000 messages urging increased public funding and the removal of ‘disruptive’ commercial breaks. A substantial submission to the Government from the Australian Greens argued that public funding shortfalls led to ‘systematic creeping commercialisation of SBS’, but that advertising revenue has begun to dry up, a situation which will have a significant influence on the broadcaster.
For once, however, the Budget has delivered positive outcomes for both the public broadcasters. SBS in particular has benefitted with extra funding of $158 million. Commentators have rightly labelled this SBS’s most significant funding ever. SBS Managing Director, Michael Ebeid, has been quoted as saying the funding will provide SBS with the means ‘to be sustainable and to position for the future’. Ebeid believes the funding increase will be sufficient to offset the slower growth in commercial revenues and to support the development of news and content that inspires and connects communities.
While in the view of one commentator the Budget funding is akin to winning the lottery prize of $70 million drawn on Budget night, the funding comes with added responsibilities and possible conflicts. SBS will be required to establish a free-to-air national Indigenous television channel to be available through its full terrestrial network and on the Viewer Access Satellite Television service (VAST) during the second half of 2012. The Indigenous television service has been allocated $63 million from the budget measure.
In 2006, academic Ellie Rennie considered it was a real possibility that Indigenous television would become an additional ABC channel. The idea of combining an Indigenous television service and either the ABC or SBS was also mooted in a 2008 discussion paper on the future of the public broadcasters. According to Rennie’s research however, some Indigenous communities were not convinced that a national Indigenous television channel would actually address the social and political needs of its audience. These communities were concerned at the time that funding for a proposed National Indigenous Television service (NITV) would be spent on ‘slick programming’ instead of an ‘audience-producer engagement model’. A Government review in 2010 confirmed that such tensions existed in Indigenous broadcasting; these have the potential to carry over into the new SBS-managed environment.
The NITV service established in July 2007 has struggled. The review of Indigenous broadcasting in 2011 labelling it under-resourced, lacking in critical capacity and skills and suffering from being administered across a range of portfolios. Recommendations from the review prompted tempered enthusiasm from NITV management for a possible SBS merger, and this remains the case initially following the Budget announcement. Concerns about the possible loss of Indigenous control of content expressed in 2011 appear to have been resolved with SBS promising that editorial control will remain with Indigenous people. It remains to be seen if remote communities will be as enthusiastic about the SBS takeover.
There remain questions also about whether the one off funding in this Budget will truly be enough to compensate for years of neglect and, more importantly, whether it will in any way diminish SBS’s reliance on advertising to bolster its revenues. The skeptical would answer that $158 million is clearly not enough compensation for past omissions, and given SBS’s added role in promoting Indigenous broadcasting, scarcely sufficient to deal with its added brief. Any one-off funding boost needs therefore to be followed by greater ongoing funding.
The ABC, while less of a beneficiary of budget largess than its fellow national broadcaster, has also been favoured with additional funds. The funding of $7.6 million over five years (including $5 million capital funding in 2011-12), is to assist the broadcaster to upgrade radio transmission sites and studios to compatibility with the VAST platform by the completion of the switchover to digital television. As Senator Conroy noted in his media release, this funding will ensure that access to news, current affairs, sport and entertainment services that many Australians rely on will not be lost. For rural and remote areas it is funding well targeted with the broadcasters due to convert 652 radio services located at 367 transmission sites and to upgrade 60 studio sites. 
Added funding for public broadcasters has not meant that the Budget has over overlooked their commercial counterparts. While commentators have not appeared to notice, these broadcasters will receive funding over five years ($143.2 million) to support the process of restacking of television broadcasting services to new channels to release a digital dividend of 700 MHz of spectrum (the public broadcasters will also receive a share of this funding). In addition, the ABC and the commercial broadcasters will receive funding of $53.5 million over four years to assist with the purchase and deployment of electronic news gathering equipment to assist them to operate in alternative spectrum bands and to clear for release the 2.5GHz spectrum band.
This will assist the Government in proceeding with the auction of rights to use portions of the 2.5GHz band for other services such as mobile broadband. This should be popular with industry as only recently the Australian Communication and Media Authority has been criticised for suggesting that the auction may be delayed. Optus for example remarked that timely access to spectrum was vital for Australia’s economy.
. R Jolly, The ABC: an overview, Background note, 20 April 2011, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2011, viewed 9 May 2012.
. Outsourcing was investigated by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee in its report, Recent ABC programming decisions, The Senate, Canberra, October 2011, viewed 9 May 2012.
. See discussion in Jolly, op. cit.
. E Rennie, Let’s spell it out once and for all, Australian Policy Online, 12 October 2006, viewed 9 May 2012.
. Comment by NITV Director of Content, Tanya Denning, T Gassin, ‘SBS and NITV begin merger talks’, The Spy Report website, 2 September 2011, viewed 9 May 2012 and SBS and NITV media release, op. cit.
. The process of clearing digital television services from the digital dividend band is referred to as restacking.
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