SBS’s ‘dire’ funding position: Campbell

By Brendan Swift

SBS Television’s funding position is “dire” after losing its number one show Top Gear and attracting a less-than-expected increase in government funding late last year, according to director of television and online content, Matt Campbell.

While the ABC received a $136.4 million funding boost over the next four years to increase local drama and launch its new kids channel, SBS received an extra $20 million to increase new content.

“I’ve never had a tougher time trying to manage the budgets across my divisions … we have no money for online, we have no money for SBS Two,” Campbell told the Australian International Documentary Conference in Adelaide.

Campbell said the $4 million government increase allocated for this year was not enough to cover a sharp drop in advertising revenue, largely caused by the global financial crisis.

“It really is dire,” he said.

The loss of UK motoring show Top Gear to Channel Nine late last year has also been a major blow for the public broadcaster, with Campbell warning producers that it now had less money to commission local programs.

“The loss of Top Gear is a serious issue for SBS and not one of my happiest moments in my TV career but that’s business. And sometimes it’s dirty business and that was particularly dirty business.”

Top Gear debuted this week on Nine and was the number one show with about 1.7 million viewers, well above the 1 million-plus audience it consistently attracted over the four years it was shown on SBS. Campbell said the relatively low audience numbers for other quality local programs shown on SBS, such as East West 101 and The Circuit, was “heartbreaking”.

“People in this country have grown up with Seven, Nine, Ten and ABC … because most of them do childrens' programming. So you come to SBS later in life.”

Meanwhile, Campbell defended the broadcaster against criticisms that it was no longer supportive of young documentary makers, an issue raised by filmmaker Tom Zubrycki while accepting the 2010 Stanley Hawes Award last night.

Campbell said SBS now appoints experienced executive producers on projects to improve the quality of documentaries rather than to stringently control creativity.

“The reality is, guess what, I’m seeing a lot less disappointment.”