It would be nice to think that all the attention that SBS is getting is only its just desserts for its wholesale introduction of crassness into a service that was once a stand out cultural beacon in the wasteland of free to air television. There was once nothing like it in the world. During those golden decades when David Stratton was presenting both new films of the highest quality and, in parallel, an unrivalled collection drawn from the greatest films of the past, the station represented something unique and precious. It owned soccer and cycling, its documentaries were as the program called them “Cutting Edge”, it gave us international news reporting each night of the highest order and set new standards for subtitling (see below). Then the management let both the key people and the high standards slip away. They thought they knew best but it’s plain to see of course they really have very little idea. I didn’t mind the channel showing commercials between programs but clearly the advertisers did and the old thin edge of the wedge finally destroyed the channel’s credibility for those of us who welcomed its presentation of the world's best movies.
It has taken a simple dummy spit from a newsreader (who apparently from the news reports alleges breach of contract because she wasn’t given enough prominence or wasn’t treated with sufficient gravitas) to start the process which just may bring the whole edifice down around the shambling buffoons now running the place. They claim success by having raising the ratings from an average of 6% to 7.5%. (one article suggested that they had raised the ratings by 25%, an assertion of innumeracy if nothing else.) This group includes Board Members like former Packer operative Gerald Stone and former Howard acolyte Christopher Pearson. Pearson once assured the readers of his column in a Murdoch rag that SBS would not be placing ads in the middle of movies. I haven’t seen, nor had reported to me, any recantation so maybe he still believes that’s the case.
Now SBS is on the back foot. Its newsreader is having meetings with senior management about exit or, most unlikely, re-entry arrangements and its senior management is drawing headlines like “Mary Kostakidis’ walkout highlights how SBS has been hijacked by deluded management” (SMH, 25/26 August). An ominous note from contrarian Paul Sheehan headed “SBS an indulgence we don’t need” (SMH 27 August) should give us all the shivers. What hope is there for it to revert to its more modest ambitions and its unique programming? Probably not much but there might just be a small moment at hand for someone in the political class to rise up and say enough is enough, that management and the governing board have failed and that they all need to move on and take their failure with them.
I mentioned above the work that David Stratton did in presenting the riches of the world’s film heritage for over twenty years. The program was generally called Cinema Classics and I estimate that David screened more than a thousand films in that time. It was a program replete with everything from curiosities like the Mexican Bunuels (just now re-screened at BIFF) to virtually every film made by Akira Kurosawa. If you made a copy of each you would have a library of unsurpassed breadth and quality. Of course we all forgot the films were on and forgot to set the recorder and went out drinking or whatever. But you have the right to expect that SBS would have retained the unique subtitles that it created for each of these works. (Often those subtitles were the first ever to be done of some films. I’m told there are copies of these films circulating, illegally, in quality US video rental stores. Piracy is a crime but cinephilia trucks no such restrictions.) But has SBS preserved this unique material or have its managers, amongst all the other mayhem they've committed, let this resource be lost or destroyed? It’s a question that needs an answer by somebody competent to examine the channel’s activities in recent years.