By Sally Rawsthorne
When we asked SBS’ director of television and online Marshall Heald what was going on at the Artarmon-based public broadcaster, he was quick to note the successes the multicultural television network has been having. “We’ve had a really fantastic six months in TV. The viewing figures for the primary channel have been really strong. SBS One has gone up about 10% in the OzTAM figures, while SBS 2 went up about 18%. We’ve really benefited from having our flagship shows back on the air, whether that’s Eurovision, Struggle Street or Go Back To Where You Came From,” he said.
Despite the considerable furore over Keo Films’ Struggle Street this year and the polarising nature of Go Back To Where You Came From, Heald said that SBS wasn’t seeking controversy for its own sake. “We are clearly focused on big flagship issues that determine social cohesion. We’re all about those hot-button topics that we think are important for Australians to have a debate around. Clearly, the asylum seeker debate is an important one, as are conversations around poverty and homelessness in contemporary society.”
The confronting and controversial nature of these shows allows for a national dialogue, he continued. “We’re focused on hot button topics where we think that we can generate large national debates. We want to create event television that gets the entire nation talking. That’s what television is all about, and it fits very well with our charter.”
“We’re all about those hot-button topics
that we think are important for Australians
to have a debate around.”
When asked if the significant media commentary around SBS’ series – and its executive, future and funding model – was distracting, Heald denied that it was. “We just put our heads down and work hard. Our content is locked in for 2015 and 2016, and we have an extraordinary slate of programming across television and online.”
As to what hot-button topics SBS might cover in the future, Heald had a number of suggestions. “There’s an enormous amount that we can look at, whether it’s poverty, homelessness, medical issues, asylum seekers, Islamaphobia, religion, racism, immigration or indigenous issues. We focus on social cohension, and the differences and diversity in the people who bind this country together.”
Heald didn’t specify when we asked if that would mean an increase in local programming, but pointed at SBS’ already significant commitment to Australian shows. “We produce about 100 hours of local programming per year, on top of our news and current affairs content. A good chunk of that is factual programming, and we’re also committed to comedy and drama, like the upcoming series The Principal,” he said.
Beyond broadcast television, Heald noted that there was plenty of news at SBS. “In the digital realm, we’ve been crazy busy as well. We’ve relaunched SBS On Demand. It’s now got over 4,000 hours of content on there. It’s way more than a catchup service. Netflix only has 6,500 hours of content. We’re really working to build that big catalogue up.
Heald said that the relaunched On Demand was in response to audience demands. “It’s very clear that people are consuming across many different platforms. SBS has a core strength in certain content areas, and the fantastic thing about that is it’s a platform to generate and feed national debate. It’s not a platform for curating a real depth of experience though. On Demand allows us to provide a curated deep catalogue of content in the areas that we’re famous for that speak to our charter, whether that’s movies or documentary or drama from around the world. There’s a real opportunity for us there to bring that kind of depth, and give audiences what they want when they want.”
As to whether it was expensive for SBS to create such a comprehensive database, Heald said: “We buy content for all different platforms, and we’ve invested more and more in digital over the past five years. We’ve had a very aggressive efficiency program running over that time, and making more content on digital is one key aspect for our future.”
Advertiser reaction to SBS’ online push has been positive, he added. “We are hybrid funded, and about one third of our funding comes from advertising. There is a demand from advertisers around online video, and they have been responding positively about what we have to offer.
“Advertisers are shifting more and more online, because they can reach more targeted audiences through the increase in available information about the people who they are hoping to reach. But television is still the best platform to deliver a large reach, so it’s a complementary piece. Like television, we have a limited licence to make revenue from online advertising.”
[blockquote style=”1″]CV: Marshall Heald
Before joining SBS, Heald was at Telstra as a group manager across movies and music. “I’ve been here for eight years. I started off running the online team with about 12 people in it. Clearly, that area has grown over time, and online audiences over that time have grown about 1,500%. That’s both in a digital content and product context. I’ve also looked after our whole distribution area, which includes things like international formats. For a short time, I looked after our whole technology area which included things like broadcast operations. I’m one of those two-generational people that have come from a hybrid technology/content background. Historically, technology was probably thought of as an enabler whereas I now consider it part of the content experience.”
He noted that working across different areas at SBS has enabled him in his current role. “Having worked online for years at SBS I am intimately familiar with the content across all of our genres. Clearly, I’ve got established relationships internally and I’ve been with all the production companies externally. I’ve been a member of the exec team here for a while, so I’m across our strategy.” Alex Dimitriades and Aden Young will star in The Principal, a new crime drama series kicking off on SBS on Wednesday 7 October 2015 at 8.30pm.[/blockquote]