Clutter’s underbelly: SBS and advertising

I’m trying hard to enjoy the new second series of Underbelly on Channel Nine but the numerous ads are making it almost unwatchable. I avoid watching the free-to-air commercial channels live – their ad breaks are too destructive to the momentum of any program. So I pre-recorded Underbelly. But even then, I was annoyed by the number of times I had to fast-forward through the clutter of 15 second ads. Ad buying in such numbers is huge business for broadcasters, but has the potential to destroy audience by over-saturation.

Advertisers are aware of the problem but few are prepared to pay 40 per cent premiums to ensure fewer ads. Nine admits there might be a problem but are hiding behind the early success of Underbelly’s 2.4 million audience. “We may need to take a position on the price of 15-second ads to reduce the clutter,” Nine’s network sales boss, Peter Wiltshire told the SMH. “But judging from Monday night’s [ratings] performance, people are not too worried about it.” The question is whether 2.4 million will be still watching after another two or three weeks of over-exposure.

SBS marketers are convinced high clutter ads are counter-productive. The state-owned station has regulatory limits on commercial airtime and claims this makes it attractive to advertisers. Last week they launched a trade press campaign called “avoid the clutter”. The campaign urges advertisers to switch to SBS because their commercial breaks are the shortest on Australian free-to-air (excepting ABC), and advertisers will “get 83% better recall and an audience that’s 45% more engaged.”

The press release does not reveal where it sources those percentages but it is a clever ploy to turn a necessity into a virtue. SBS is a much savvier commercially-aware network under CEO Shaun Brown. While his innovations since taking over in 2005 (most notably in-program ads) have divided audiences, he remains committed to re-position the station. Ratings have become a critical measure of the station’s performance – though they remain stuck in the five to six percent region. Nevertheless, as his publicity manager Mike Field said, “Brown likes numbers”.

Brown arrived at the station in 2003 as head of television. He told “The SBS Story” he found an organisation captive to the “Anglo arthouse” camp. He criticised the focus on documentaries and foreign movies. “I’ve got no problems with any of those programs, but they are not exactly defining of our charter,” said Brown. He wanted more locally commissioned content and a shift from international acquisitions to meet charter obligations.

But a major point in the charter is the need to “contribute to meeting the communications needs of Australia’s multicultural society.” Firstly with radio and then television, SBS became the key cultural institution for ethnic communities in Australia for the last 30 years. But while movies, documentaries and sport have long been core multicultural programming on SBS TV, that content is threatened by new delivery platforms of the 2000s. Competitors in Pay TV, broadband Internet, DVDs and digital TV led to a decline in television viewing (particularly among the young).

SBS has responded in three ways; by programming more populist, imported English language shows (Mythbusters, Top Gear, South Park), enhancing the brand’s online presence, and greater prominence to advertising. Brown defends these measures saying the channel must become more relevant “for all Australians”. As he said to the Press club in 2007 “ How can we be relevant, justify the public expenditure and meet our Charter obligations if only a fraction of Australians are tuning in?”

Public expenditure becomes relevant again this year as triennial funding comes up for renewal. The review has re-opened SBS’s raison d’etre. Paul Sheehan ruffled feathers when he called the station “an indulgence we don’t need”. He said international news, sport and entertainment pay TV channels didn’t exist when SBS TV was conceived in 1979. Sheehan said the Government could raise billions selling SBS and its digital spectrum. “SBS is now standing in the way of quality,” he said.

Brown argues the new SBS model creates quality content. He says the advertising revenue generated by programs like Top Gear cross-subsidises innovative locally commissioned content. For him, commercialism enhances the station’s public service mandate. SBS’s core principles of difference and diversity remain valid. In-program ads increase revenue and allow for effective cross-promotion of other SBS programs. The station may sacrifice distinctiveness in the search for all-encompassing advertising revenue. Perhaps the clutter argument is an acknowledgement that less is more for a public broadcaster.

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