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More than Sex and Bloody Soccer


The SBS StoryIen Ang, Gay Hawkins, Lamia Dabboussy, The SBS Story. The Challenge of Cultural Diversity, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008. RRP $39. ISBN 978 086840 839 2, website.

SBS television has been called many things: the 'sexual broadcasting service' because of the risqué foreign language films that it shows, the 'wog channel' and, in the words of Kerry Packer, 'sex and bloody soccer'. Others talk about a TV channel for 'ethnics' and 'eggheads'.

In fact, as The SBS Story points out, the aim is to bring the riches of world cultures to Australia. 'Foreign language television is not supposed to be a medium for cultural ethnic insularity … but to broaden the cultural horizons of all Australians beyond their own ethnocentric and monocultural comfort zones.'

SBS radio is somewhat different. Broadcasting in 68 languages, it is the ultimate melting pot, a symbol of an inclusive Australian multiculturalism in which different languages and cultures are respected. SBS Radio gives a voice to those who cannot participate in public discourse because they are not fluent in English. It is the only broadcaster in the world to cover so many languages within a single organisational framework.

The whole thing evolved out of ethnic radio which began in Sydney and Melbourne in 1975 set up by the Whitlam government. These stations were massively popular with 1.1 million listeners, so Malcolm Fraser set up the Special Broadcasting Service in 1978 to give them permanence and to extend them to all capital cities. SBS TV began in 1980.

This book is the story of this truly unique public broadcaster struggling through the passions and contradictions involved in moving from popular or ethnic multiculturalism to cosmopolitan multiculturalism. That involves bringing diverse, isolated and divided ethnic communities together in a way in which people 'with different roots … can co-exist and ... can learn from the image-banks of others', to quote Australian art critic, Robert Hughes. The ultimate aim is a genuine pluralism in which people could, in the words of former managing director, Malcolm Long, successfully 'navigate difference.'

At first the emphasis in radio was on the ethnic communities exercising a strong sense of ownership of their 'own' language program. Presentation was somewhat amateurish, but the service was professionalised from the mid-1980s onwards with the realisation that SBS was a public rather than a community broadcaster. Achieving this was no easy task.

The SBS Story is a fine book that examines the continuing conundrum of resolving these tensions. It examines them clearly and from a number of perspectives. It is best summed up in Malcolm Long's words as a debate between those who see SBS as 'an organisation which served the cultural and community needs of the separate communities in their own languages, versus those who saw SBS as a multicultural, open organisation designed to expose the riches of world cultures to all Australians.'


Paul CollinsPaul Collins is a former head of religious broadcasting at ABC Radio.





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Existing comments

A Bendigo journalist once recounted that, getting home late at night after putting the paper to bed, he'd turned on SBS TV, and been disgusted by the very explicit sexual film which appeared. He surfed the other channels and after seeing somebody violently killed on every one of them he went gratefully back to the Swedish soft porn.

Michael Grounds | 14 November 2008  

I give SBS TV top marks for its news coverage. In many ways, it's superior to the dumbed-down ABC news. I just wish they would reverse their decision to pollute their programs with advertising.

Warwick | 15 November 2008  

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