Federal Politics

ABC power grab: Mark Scott suggests ABC and SBS should merge

Departing ABC managing director Mark Scott has questioned whether SBS should be merged with the ABC, a move that would see the multicultural network lose its special status as a standalone public broadcaster.

At his final appearance at Senate estimates hearings, Mr Scott said SBS was an "analogue solution in a digital world" and argued the broadcaster was losing its distinctiveness.

ABC and SBS merger?

The head of the ABC has suggested a merger with the SBS, saying there is less distinguishing the public broadcasters now than ever before.

The topic was sparked by questions from senators about the ABC's decision to bid for the Asian Cup football tournament against SBS and to air Foreign Correspondent at the same time as SBS's leading international current affairs program Dateline.

Mr Scott said these examples raised a "broader policy question" for the government about the future of the two broadcasters. Combining the two broadcasters was a topic "worthy of investigation", he said.

ABC managing director Mark Scott inside his office in Ultimo, Sydney.
ABC managing director Mark Scott inside his office in Ultimo, Sydney. Photo: Nic Walker

"SBS was created well before digitisation, well before digital television ... it's an analogue solution in a digital world," he said. "When Foxtel wants to run new discrete channels, they don't create entire new networks around it."

Mr Scott said SBS was established in 1975 as a multicultural broadcaster but had become more similar to the ABC and other networks over time.

"I suspect that the SBS of today which is more 'general interest broadcasting' means the distinction between the two broadcasters is not as [strong] as it once was," he said.

"For example, I think it's true to say on any reckoning that there is far less subtitled content on its main channel than 20 or 30 years ago."

SBS managing director Michael Ebeid.
SBS managing director Michael Ebeid. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

SBS2 also airs very similar programs to the youth-focussed ABC2, he said.

An SBS spokeswoman said: "SBS's sole focus is on continuing to provide unique services to multicultural Australia at a time when inspiring a greater understanding of the value of multiculturalism has never been more important.

"Our audiences are up 11 per cent and we are using digital technology in a way that no other broadcaster can to reach multicultural communities, with more multilingual content that at any time in our history."

At an earlier appearance, SBS managing director Michael Ebeid said he was "disappointed" the ABC would air Foreign Correspondent at 9.30pm Tuesday - Dateline's long-standing time slot.It was a "waste" for two similar programs covering international affairs to air at the same time, he said.

As well as running four television stations and an online service, SBS also broadcasts radio programs in over 70 languages.

The ABC is currently negotiating its three-year funding deal with the government, and is arguing for extra funds for regional news services. In a submission to a House of Representatives inquiry into regional media, the ABC argues that redirecting a substantial chunk of its current funding to regional services would "disenfranchise large sections of the ABC audience" - including in the cities.

Mr Scott, who has served almost 10 years as ABC managing director, will be succeeded by Google executive Michelle Guthrie in April.

An efficiency review commissioned by then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2014 called for the ABC and SBS to share office space to save taxpayer money. The ABC pushed for the move, but it was rejected by SBS.

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who oversaw the creation of SBS, said at the time: "This would be the first step towards the abolition of the SBS.

"They are fundamentally different broadcasters with different audiences and different needs."

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