“We just picked up our brand new 1989 Jambaroo RV and we’re just about to arrive back at the VICE offices, and I’m gonna grab my two co-workers Will Cooper and Martina de Alba and show them around our digs for the next month because we’re about to go on a great American road trip.”
This is how Abdullah Saeed, better known as That Guy That Smokes A Lot of Weed on Facebook, introduces the documentary series Vice Does America to an anticipatory millennial audience. As I stream the first episode on my computer I find myself irritated. I am irritated by the fifteen second advertisement for Bonds “panties”, featuring a terrible joke about pearl lingerie. I am irritated by the flashing gif to the right of the video advertising Smiths brand potato chips as an “Aussie staple”.
However what irritates me most is the fact that I am enduring aggressively commercial levels of advertising while streaming a programme about American politics on a channel run by a New York City based media conglomerate that is hosted on the SBS. Welcome to SBS: VICELAND.
The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) was founded in 1975, primarily to cater to a linguistically diverse audience that had immigrated to Australia following the the Vietnam War. Realising that the influx of immigrants and refugees who couldn’t speak English would still need access to basic public broadcasting, and that the ABC alone couldn’t cater to all these people, the Whitlam government launched what would later become the SBS in 1975 during their roll out of MediBank.
This focus on accessibility has always been the primary goal of the SBS. The first section of the SBS charter states that “the principal function of SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio, television and digital media services”.
The reason we require a government funded public broadcaster to do these things is because commercial media outlets follow an advertising revenue based model of business. They aren’t selling news to an audience; they are selling an audience to advertisers.
The SBS’s goals aren’t financially viable in this way. An audience watching Russian language news or French midday films aren’t large enough to warrant investing in, no matter how important those programmes may be. This is why the SBS operates as a primarily publicly funded broadcaster.
Knowing the purpose of the SBS; why have they entered into a partnership with a New York City based media organisation, partially owned by Fox and Disney, whose US employees have threatened to unionise? It turns out that VICELAND is actually the second SBS channel to be run content almost exclusively produced by an American-owned corporation. Launched in 2015 The Food Network is operated under license by Scripps Networks Interactive, the same company that runs the US Food Network.
VICELAND is a big deal; public service broadcasters have special privileges, government funding and unique audiences. Many commercial broadcasters resent public broadcasters for double dipping by receiving advertising revenue on top of their government funding. It’s easy to see why, with successful examples overseas, such as the BBC, receiving funding despite being internationally recognised.
How can we trust the SBS to be independent and to fulfill its purpose when two of their channels are affiliated with American media conglomerates? With 20 per cent of their funding now sourced externally, the SBS will be increasingly subject to corporate interest.
The SBS website reads: “Advertising with SBS opens up brands and clients to the unique and high value audience SBS has to offer. Our audience is hard to reach on other networks and is diverse. SBS Media’s tagline is diversity works as the diversity of our audience, content and platforms allows clients to connect with people hard to find on other networks.” The SBS is selling the minority groups they’re meant to be looking after to advertisers.
When asked whether concerns regarding commercial interests in the SBS were warranted, an SBS spokesperson told Honi; “SBS continues to work within its budgets to deliver unique and distinctive content across TV, radio and online”, before directing us to a media release concerning VICELAND from mid 2016.
Blame for these developments is hard to pinpoint. The Coalition government has dramatically cut SBS funding, however, it would be a copout to blame them entirely when complaints about the increasingly commercial behaviour of SBS have been constant since the early 2000s. Too often these conversations end in finger-pointing and political dogfights, instead of legitimate investigation into SBS corporate practices.
Some people see this behaviour as a good thing; that public broadcasters should be self-sufficient if they want to be competitive. Public broadcasters, however, aren’t meant to be competitive, or profitable. Public broadcasters are meant to do the important jobs that their commercial counterparts won’t waste money doing.
Public broadcasters are meant to treat their audiences as people, and not as commodities.
Note: article updated 19/3/17 to reflect the fact that SBS VICELAND is owned by SBS, but operated by Vice.