Cash for Aus drama, kids, but SBS misses out

Rose Major

There were mixed outcomes for Australia’s public service broadcasters in yesterday’s federal budget, with the ABC doing well but multicultural broadcaster SBS receiving just an extra A$20 million over the next three years, a tenth of what it requested.

Even in these economically tight times, the SBS settlement looks paltry, especially compared with the extra A$167 million the ABC has been allocated. It is also likely to mean hard choices ahead for the multicultural broadcaster, which may have to examine its plans for online and digital TV developments closely.

SBS had asked for A$70 million extra a year for nine new digital radio stations, two new digital TV channels and to up its Australian programming output by over 100 hours a year. But the settlement – an extra A$20 million over three years, of which over half won’t be available until the 2011-2012 financial year – is being provided only to increase SBS’s production by up to 50 hours a year. Any digital plans will therefore have to be funded, if at all, from SBS’s ongoing operational base funding of A$118.7 milion in 2009-2010, A$120.6 million in 2010–11 and A$123.3 million in 2011-12.

Funding for the ABC, meanwhile, has increased substantially. A new children’s channel, ABC3, has been given A$67 million over the next three years. The channel will launch later this year.

There is also A$70 million for local drama production and A$15 million for regional broadband hubs. The ABC will “act as a catalyst and host for the creation of rich broadband content in regional and rural Australia,” the broadcaster said in a statement.

"This major funding increase is a vote of confidence in the leadership role that the ABC will play in digital Australia – through radio, television and broadband," ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said. "And the new funding for broadband content affirms the ABC’s role as Australia’s town square – a place Australians can come to speak and be heard, to listen and learn from each other. Broadband funding puts the ABC at the centre of the new digital revolution; using fast networks to communicate new content with audiences in different ways and allowing the ABC to host content the audiences create themselves."

The ABC will receive ongoing operational base funding of A$698.7 million in 2009-10, A$716.0 million in 2010–11 and A$725.8 million in 2011–12.

Digital switchover is also on the government’s ‘To Do’ list, with additional funding of A$140 million over the next three years for core digital switchover activities in regional South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. The cash will go towards practical in-home assistance for low-income home; information campaigns; and “working with industry to allow for a smooth transition to digital TV”.

Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy said: "The Victorian region surrounding Mildura will lead the nation in digital TV take-up and will experience analog switch-off in the first half of 2010.

"Other parts of Victoria, regional South Australia and Queensland will follow and are due to complete switchover by the end of 2011. The new funding directed toward activities in these areas will assist the switchover process and supplement existing funding for digital switchover Australia-wide.”

The extra cash will be welcomed by the industry, especially in light of new research by audience measurement body Oztam, which claimed less than half of homes in metropolitan Australia, let alone rural and regional homes, are able to receive digital free-to-air channels.

Oztam found only 43.4% of homes in metro markets could receive digital free-to-air TV. Perth had the highest penertation at 47.2%, Brisbane next on 45.4%, Melbourne on 44.1%, Adelaide on 42.7% and Sydney on just 40%.