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Changing Cultural Channels: SBS-TV, Imparja and Australian Television
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
***** MOLLOY ***********EJC/REC Vol. 3, No. 3 & 4, 1993 ****


Bruce Molloy
Queensland University of Technology

        Abstract.  This article discusses two attempts
     at incorporating multicultural programming within
     Australian television.  After providing some
     general background on Australian society, it
     suggests that television plays a role in
     constructing the national political and national
     cultural, two basic elements in the construction
     of national identity.  It then examines the
     Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and changes in
     the policy directions of this service to ethnic
     minorities within Australian society.  Next it
     discusses Imparja, an initiative aimed at
     providing a commercial television service in
     central Australia intended to provide some
     Aboriginal programming.  It also looks at some
     variations on this model in remote Aboriginal
     communities.  It concludes that the SBS model has
     been more successful than the Imparja model in
     meeting the needs of its target audiences.

       Background: Australian Culture and Television

     Australian identity is a product of history and
geography.  History has contributed an overlay of two
centuries of predominantly white European colonisation on
land occupied for the previous 40,000 - 50,000 years by
Aboriginal people.  In more recent times, geography has
forced a recognition of Australia as a country located in an
Asian context, well placed to be a link between eastern and
western nations, and called into question traditional links
such as the British connection.

     Australia like all nations is a site of contestation
between different cultures.  It is an arena of
transformative practices as a population largely derived
from migrants and their offspring attempts to align
traditions and cultural practices deriving from their
homeland, or some imaginary view of it, with the prevailing
conditions of existence here.  Any version of national
identity and national culture is an invention and involves
parallelisms and dualities.  Far from being a seamless
construct, identity comprises a series of emergent and
continually negotiated discourses.

     Except in the case of the Aboriginal people (treated
for the purposes of this paper as a unitary group), these
discourses incorporate reference points drawn from some
"home" culture.  In Australia, the most notable of these are
drawn from Britain:  legal systems, educational systems and
so on.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics,
the dominant ethnic group in Australia, accounting for
around 48% of the population is Anglo-Celtic; 22% are
non-Anglo Celtic; while the remaining 30% comprise a mixed
Anglo-Celtic and non Anglo-Celtic group deriving from
intermarriage.  For the first two hundred years, the
Anglo-Celtic group has been dominant, using the fiction of
terra nullius to dispossess the Aboriginal people and
destroy the fabric of Aboriginal society.  In recent times,
as the proportion of Anglo-Celtic Australians has
diminished, the dominance of this group has been questioned,
and this questioning has led to significant movements
towards social justice for Aborigines and to an acceptance
of multiculturalism as a national policy for all

     Multiculturalism recognises the rights of minority
groups to maintain an appropriate cultural identity within
the social, political and economic frame of the Australian
nation.  It underpins national policies such as immigration,
equal opportunity, affirmative action and opposition to
racism.  It is a social and cultural project of
nation-building, arguing for continuity between homeland and
Australian social context.  Multiculturalism is an
integrative project, designed to provide equality of
opportunity and to lead to greater economic and national
cohesion.  It is, of course, contested by conservative
elements in Australian society, those who have most to lose
by any adjustments to the status quo.

     Television plays an important role in this process as
an agent of popular socialisation.  Popular socialisation
connotes the evolution of common cultural understandings in
relation to such issues as sense of identity, notions of
citizenship and the development of ideology, in its broadest
sense of knowledge of the world.  In his work National
Identity, Anthony Smith (1991) argues that national identity
comprises two related elements:  the national political,
constituted of the common political and civic conventions
involving citizenship and equality before the law, and the
national cultural, the core of popular memory, myths,
symbols, value systems and significant imagery that are
shared by a nation.  Smith posits that unless both these are
the subject of consensus, a nation is not sustainable.

     Television, along with other forms of cultural
production, works at development of the national political
and the national cultural at various levels of society.  It
supports this by acting as a vehicle for their transmission,
but it may also challenge and subvert them.  It contributes
to the construction of the national political through news
and current affairs and to the construction of national
cultural through drama, "infotainment" and documentary,
while sport and other programs may contribute to both or

     As a medium-sized nation with English as its major
language and situated in both physical and existential terms
at the cusp of British and American influence, Australia
must rely on a substantial proportion of imported television
programs to maintain the operation of its three commercial
networks as well as its two government-supported television
networks, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and
the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).  This differentiates
it from both Britain and the USA which have the population
to support programming which is predominantly locally

     Consequently, Australian television programming is a
mix of local and imported, and therefore an intersection
point of economic and cultural policies.  For this reason,
ownership and control of television and other media, and
concern about the provision of local content are significant
elements on this Australian political agenda.  Without a
degree of government intervention and regulation, it is
conceivable that the production of quality Australian
television drama would be severely constrained by the
availability of drama produced outside Australia, mainly in
the USA, at costs which are a fraction of the cost of
mounting comparable Australian productions.  While this
might be a reasonable situation in strictly economic terms,
it is undesirable, even pernicious, in terms of the
development of the national cultural elements of Australian

     The problems of maintaining programming which
contributes to the mainstream of Australian culture are
considerable given the economic realities of Australian
television.  The issue of presenting minority programs in
line with the policy of multiculturalism is yet more
difficult, since inevitably the audience segments for such
programming are small, irrespective of the nature of the
minority group.  If such a minority group is of non-English
speaking background, then special provisions are required to
provide such programming.

     In this paper, two such special cases will be
considered.  They are SBS-TV, a government-funded
multicultural television network, and Imparja, a commercial
television service owned and operated by Aboriginal people
serving a vast but sparsely populated area of central

                           SBS TV

     The establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service
or SBS came from a convergence of cultural and technological
circumstances during the 1970s and 1980s.  The actual
initiative was part of prime minister Malcolm Fraser's
policy speech in 1977, and its implementation over the next
three years was achieved in the face of considerable
opposition.  The government even overrode the
recommendations of a senate committee that multicultural
television should be provided by way of a second ABC channel
rather than a separate organisation.

     The charter of the SBS called for the provision of
television programs "in community languages and English to
entertain, inform and educate" both ethnic communities and
the broader community, and "to foster the appreciation and
development of the cultural diversity of Australian society"
(SBS Annual Report).  Unlike its existing radio services,
SBS-TV was planned as a multicultural service, with English
subtitles provided for ethnic language programs.

     Its programming policies called for around 75% of
programs to come from non-English speaking overseas
countries.  This coupled with severe funding constraints led
to considerable innovation in programming.  For example, its
highly acclaimed news was developed using
satellite-delivered VisNews stories not taken up by the ABC
or commercial services, supplemented by material from weekly
programs provided by overseas government broadcasting
services, and by small segments of locally produced news.
From the outset, SBS-TV rejected the concept of flow-on
audiences, basic to Australian commercial television
programming, in favour of audiences who would "visit" the
service for specific programs.

     At first, programs were confined to Sydney and
Melbourne and were broadcast on the VHF band, using channels
0 and 28.  With the advent of the AUSSAT satellite in the
mid-1980s, the network, now retitled SBS-TV, was
established, although it was relocated on the UHF band.
This change led to a reduction in homes receiving SBS in
Sydney and Melbourne, where the UHF service has still not
reached the level of penetration that existed before 1985,
since it requires a special antenna and is subject to local

     Despite these changes, the fundamental policies of
obtaining 75% of programs overseas, and maintaining a 50:50
balance of English and non-English programs were retained.
During the early 1980s Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs were
the major ethnic audiences for SBS.  In the second half of
the 1980s, the emphasis shifted.  A greater proportion of
program time was dedicated to middle-Eastern and Islamic
countries, while Asian language programs were added.  With
the Australian Bicentenary in 1988, considerable pressure
was applied for an increase in Aboriginal programming, with
the Aboriginal current affairs program, First in Line going
to air in 1989.  SBS had earlier pioneered drama about
Aborigines with its excellent series Women of the Sun as
early as 1982 (O'Regan, 1993).  Some of these shifts are
evident in the evolution of SBS identification segments over
the decade.

     The trend away from ethnicity towards minority
interests based on sexual preference, environmental issues
and religious affiliations accelerated in the late 1980s.
This shift from ethnicity as major emphasis was evident in
the changes over time in the format of the news and current
affairs programs that contributed substantially to SBS
reputation for quality programming.  From its inception SBS
had aimed at delivery of a "world" news service.  This
resulted as much from financial constraints as from cultural
policy.  Analysis of mainstream commercial and ABC news
services indicated that they used very few of the overseas
news items delivered daily by satellite services such as
VisNews, the ABC averaging four and the commercials two to
three.  This allowed SBS to build a reputation for
comprehensive world news coverage by picking up the unused
feeds, and supplementing them with low cost magazine-type
news features produced weekly by foreign government
information services (Patterson, 1992).  Often news from as
many as twenty overseas countries is featured in SBS daily
one-hour news segments.  In line with evolutions in its
multicultural mission, an increasing proportion of
Australian news is used to frame these foreign news items,
and in both news and current affairs, overseas events are
related where possible to Australian society.  News and
current affairs are a major priority of SBS, soaking up 30%
of the total budget and an enormous 48% of the available
budget for locally produced programs.

     Shrewd policies for buying foreign language film and
drama also allowed SBS to maximise its sparse resources
(A$62 M in 1991-92).  Since mainstream commercial TV
programs only English language material, SBS has been able
to purchase high quality foreign material at relatively low
prices.  Most of this foreign language material is subtitled
by the SBS, an operation of extremely high quality.

     "Quality" has been a keystone of SBS programming from
the start.  In part this was due to a philosophical
principle that an ethnic broadcast service could not afford
to be viewed as second-rate, in part to a pre-emptive
strategy of downgrading ratings as a measure of performance.
The quality argument also served as some defence against
moral and political censorship, though both would impact
upon SBS from time to time.

     In terms of audience policies, SBS did not practice the
"follow through" approach to audiences practised by the
commercials.  Rather it pursued a "narrowcast" approach of
audience segmentation, with its major targets being specific
ethnic or language groups, together with cosmopolitan
Australians of other groups.

     The demographics indicate that this policy has been
successful.  Over 40% of the SBS audience were born outside
Australia (cf. 21% of the Australian population) and 23% of
its audience belong to managerial/professional households
(cf. 17% of the population).  SBS-TV ratings are low, though
SBS surveys indicate that some three million Australians
view it each week.  In recent years its highest ratings,
apart from sport, came for the series The Civil War, with
early episodes rating between 11 and 12 in Sydney and
Melbourne.  SBS picked up The Civil War, incidentally, after
the ABC rejected it (O'Regan, 1993).  Normally, SBS programs
rate around 2 to 3.

     The future for the SBS depends upon a number of
variables.  A new charter allows the SBS to sell commercial
time as well as sponsorship, which may provide additional
economic stability and possibly additional funds for
production.  The increased reach of SBS has diminished its
proportion of ethnic audience, and this may decline further
as immigration declines, while the traditional ethnic groups
may be affected by increased Asian migration.  SBS
programming is vulnerable to political events, both in
Australia and overseas as evidenced by the replacement of
the Croatian anchor of Vox Populi with an Aborigine
following the eruption of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe.
SBS is also likely to be troubled by its success in
developing audiences for world news and foreign-language
films when Pay-TV is eventually established.

     On the positive side, the continuing movement away from
ethnicity towards cultural diversity should broaden the base
of audience support for SBS.  The nature and diversity of
programming coupled with cost effectiveness in terms of
output per employee and unit cost of programming suggest
that it should remain viable in its specialist niche.

     In addition, one might argue that SBS-TV has performed
a useful function in providing a model for mainstream
Australian televised in meeting the challenges implicit in
cultural diversity.  These include news protocols for
treating cultural pluralism, representation of ethnic
identities in non-stereotypical ways in drama and
advertising, and incorporation of various multicultural
elements into the development of a national cultural
appropriate to a poly-ethnic, multilingual society (O'Regan,


     Like SBS, Imparja was established in the face of
considerable opposition.  When the Australian Broadcasting
Tribunal called applications for Remote Commercial
Television Service (RCTS), the Central Australian Aboriginal
Media Association (CAAMA) was an applicant.  It based its
application upon a claim that 38% of the potential audience
were Aborigines, and that a majority of the surviving
Aboriginal language groups in Australia, some 22 in all with
three or four dominant, were found in this region.

     The other potential licensee was the Capricornia group
based on existing television interests in Darwin's NTD-8[2].
The tribunal process was protracted, but Imparja, the group
sponsored by CAAMA, was finally successful, though not
without surviving an appeal by the Capricornia group and
the Northern Territory government.  The approval for Imparja
came in April 1987, and operations commenced shortly
afterwards in January 1988 (Corker, 1986).

     The problems facing Imparja were complex.  Just as the
public debates about SBS revolved around the rights of
minority groups to representation, the politics of ethnicity
and questions of social integration and cultural
maintenance, so similar questions surrounded the operations
of Imparja.  They were further complicated by the role of
Aboriginal law, knowledge based on oral traditions and other
intellectual property jealously guarded by tribal
custodians.  Aboriginal culture encompasses a mythology, or
perhaps more properly a cosmology, which is manifest in
stories, songs, dance and graphic design, and which was in
the past communicated along traditional geographic
song-lines and story-lines.  Consequently, Aboriginal people
could see analogies between this traditional
information-sharing and the communication lines opened up by
satellite technology.  There were, of course, problems
caused by the arcane nature of some of this information, as
well as by challenges to the traditional roles of tribal
elders resulting from the greater English proficiency of
younger Aborigines, and by prohibitions and restrictions
upon the use of images and even of names, particularly where
dead people were involved (Michaels, 1986).

     However, with a grant from the federal government and
additional if reluctant funding from the Northern Territory
government who had agreed to buy substantial time from the
new television station when it was thought the Darwin group
would be successful, Imparja commenced operations as a
commercial television station serving some thirty remote

     Particular Aboriginal programming on Imparja is
embedded within regular services based upon mainstream
programs.  Imparja Television as the owner of the television
licence operates the television station in Alice Springs
while CAAMA Productions specialises in programs treating
Aboriginal topics, some of which go to air on Imparja.  Both
are part of the same group of companies, which are owned by
Aboriginal interests.  Since Imparja is a commercial
operation, its programming must attract sponsorship, and
currently its operating costs exceed its government grant of
A$2 million by around A$700,000.  Consequently only around
2% of Imparja's programming is Aboriginal, notably the news
program Urrpeye (Messenger) and the magazine-style program
Nganampa (Ours), which were intended for broadcast in three
Aboriginal languages with English subtitles.  The cost of
producing these Aboriginal language programs is, however,
prohibitively high.  As yet, Aboriginalisation of the
management of Imparja and of its creative staff has been

     In the Aboriginal communities of Yuendumu in the
Northern Territory and Ernabella in South Australia, a form
of Aboriginal television has developed.  Using equipment
provided by the Australian government under its Broadcasting
for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS), local
Aboriginal media groups are producing programs which are
interpolated in the programs received from the satellite.
In this context, the production, distribution and financing
of these local programs is under Aboriginal control.  The
programs are often educational, adapting the format of
mainstream children's programs for local conditions and
featuring local people and language.  Some others might be
properly termed cultural maintenance, as they record
traditional songs and dance for dissemination to Aborigines
who are ignorant of them.  Yet others record secret
ceremonies and are consequently not available for general

     While Imparja indicates one way television can
contribute to the incorporation of Aboriginal culture within
the national cultural, it also shows problems of
Aboriginalisation of programming and personnel in the
context of a commercial broadcast service.  Ernabella and
Yuendumu provide an example of Aboriginal control of
incoming television programs, at least in part, and of
attempts to inscribe culturally appropriate forms within
mainstream television programming.


     Imparja and SBS-TV represent two approaches to the
problem of minority groups contributing to the national
cultural through access to television.  SBS-TV has evolved
from a principal focus on ethnic minorities to a more
general interpretation of multiculturalism based on a
diversity of minority interests.  By any standard, SBS- TV
should be judged as successful in development of national
cultural elements.

     Imparja, on the other hand, clearly reflects the
tensions operating in attempting to reconcile commercial
operations with the representation of a particular cultural
group which has little economic resource.  Perhaps a model
for Aboriginal television based along lines similar to SBS,
allowing for a broadcast service across Northern Australia
with provision for inclusion of special interest Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Island insert programs, or utilising
common dialects such as Kriol, might constitute a more
viable indigenous television scheme.

     SBS-TV and Imparja comprise uniquely Australian
attempts to allow indigenous and other minorities to find
representation on Australian television screens, and in this
way to allow incorporation of Aboriginal and other
minoritarian interests and images within the national
cultural and the national political of the Australian
nation.  They are significant attempts to contribute to a
genuinely multicultural Australia.


[1] The writer acknowledges his particular debt to the
    forthcoming work of Tom O'Regan in framing this
    article, and also to his colleagues at QUT, Michael
    Meadows and Stuart Cunningham, for their valuable
    advice.  Detailed information provided by John Stahel
    (SBS) and Neville Perkins (Imparja) is also gratefully

[2] NTD-8 is a television station identification code:
    "Northern Territory, Darwin - Channel 8."


Corker, J. (1986).  An aboriginal commercial television
     station.  Legal Service Bulletin, 115-120.

Michaels, E. (1986).  Aboriginal invention of television,
     central Australia, 1982-86.  Canberra:  Australian
     Institute of Aboriginal Affairs.

O'Regan, T. (1993).  Australian television culture.  Sydney:
     Allen and Unwin.

Patterson, R. (1992).  SBS-TV:  Forerunner of the future,
     Media Information Australia, 66, 45-52.

SBS Annual Report 1991-1992.  (1992).  Sydney:  SBS.

Smith, A.D.  (1991).  National identity.  London:  Penguin.

Correspondence:  Bruce Molloy
                 School of Media and Journalism
                 Queensland University of Technoloyy
                 GPO Box 2434
                 Brisbane  4001
                 Ph 07-8642119, fax 07-8641031
                      Copyright 1993
   Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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