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Interview: SBS Content Director on new Food channel and future of the Broadcaster

InterviewsKevin Perry

Destination Flavour - part of the new lineup on SBS Food.
image - supplied/SBS

SBS Television has announced the launch of Australia’s first free-to-air television channel dedicated to the world of food.

It’s a channel that SBS hopes will bring a whole new audience to the network, and perhaps more importantly hopes it will provide a new source of revenue for the broadcaster.


The official name for the channel is yet to be revealed but it will become SBS’s fourth free-to-air channel when it launches on SBS 3 in November, joining the portfolio of SBS, SBS 2 and NITV. I asked Helen Kellie, Chief Content Director at SBS to explain the thinking behind the new channel.


“We gained the opportunity about a year ago after the analogue switchover to launch another free-to-air channel. We've been looking at all the different possibilities of what was best thing for us, and where were the best opportunities in the Australian market,” said Kellie.
“Food on a Thursday night on our main channel is one of our biggest, most consistent performers with our audiences.”


Programming for the channel is yet to be finalised but locally produced programs such as Destination Flavour, Rachel Khoo’s Cooking Notebook, and the Luke Nguyen series will feature prominently. The channel will also include international cooking programs from an output deal that SBS has negotiated with Scripps Networks Interactive. A company that specialises in producing this kind of programming.

 “We found an opportunity to provide something incremental to what we currently do at SBS, and that's about seeking out the younger and more female audience than we currently do with the core SBS food offering.”

While there are already so many cooking programs on Australian Television, many of them are built around reality game shows. SBS is hoping to provide something different.

“I think a lot of that food is around competitions, and reality, this will very much be about food, cooking, and traveling ... Food inspired by travel,” suggests Kellie.
“We call it real food, not reality food. It's very much the food and all that surrounds it. Including the people, it's not just about cooking, it's about the people behind food, it's about their stories. We're all fascinated by people's stories, and food's a wonderful way to tell that tale.”

Whenever a government broadcaster launches a new service, questions are immediately asked about funding. SBS is keen to make it clear the new channel will not be an additional burden for taxpayers.

“We're launching (SBS Food) at no net cost to the rest of our content portfolio in the first year. Overtime (the new channel) will deliver some modest profits, I would say, over years 2 and 3, into the future for us. It's not costing us, and we do not have to take money out of other content areas in order to do this. It will help us going into the future.”

Helen Kellie - Chief Content Director for SBS Television
image - supplied/SBS

Foxtel’s Lifestyle channels have always been well backed by advertising agencies keen to reach housewives and its clear SBS wants to tap into that income source.

“We wouldn't have been doing our homework properly if we hadn’t had discussions with media buying agencies before we committed for the long term. We've had those discussions and we've had a really positive response.”
“It's not just about the money,” “We absolutely see this growing our audience footprint as well. If we can bring in that younger more female audience, that gives us opportunity to cross promote to that audience some of the key shows that we've got on the SBS portfolio as well.”

Earlier this year, SBS went to the Abbott government requesting permission to increase the level of primetime advertising on its channels as a way recovering revenue that had been removed by budget cuts. That request was denied leaving SBS in a position where it has been forced to cuts in local programming.

"We know that's left us with a funding hole, obviously we're continuing discussions with the government around the impact of that hole, and are trying to mitigate it as much as possible.”

With a new Prime Minister and new Minister for Communications now in place, SBS is hopeful it can still find a way to restore funding.

“It’s something Michael Ebeid (SBS CEO and Managing Director) and the team are working very hard at, particularly with the new ministry, we'll continue those discussions and we are determined to follow up every possible route to minimise the impact on our content here at SBS. “

Kellie declined to concede that local programming would have to be cut if funding was not restored to the organisation.

“I don't want to make commitments either way, because we really want to make sure we pursue every possibility to get that money back from the government. I would hate to create scaremongering in the industry. I think that's not appropriate. We want to follow up with the government, work closely with them to try and explore every possibility.”

One of the big criticisms of the modern SBS is that it no longer provides a significant level of ‘Language Other Than English’ (LOTE) programming on its main channel. As the organisation becomes increasingly reliant on advertising revenue to supplement the government funding, it has moved toward more mainstream forms of programming.

“I absolutely think the role of the main channel and the organization as a whole is about exploring and celebrating diversity for all Australians. In some ways we battle that directly through LOTE Film, or LOTE Drama, we still have a commitment to provide the very best of foreign language drama on the main network with shows like The Legacy, Borgen, and The Bridge. They're still up on our main service.
“But in addition, some of our ways of celebrating diversity are about taking big Australian topics that maybe appeal to a broader audience, you see us doing that with our landmark documentaries right through the year on a regular basis, whether that's shows like First Contact, or Go Back To Where You Came From, we will continue to be just as committed to those landmark documentaries that explore diversity in a much broader way for all Australians.”
“We have increasingly acquired full English language dramas, shows such as Vikings, or Fargo are really important for us. It means we have a regular strong drama audience who comes to us every week. Then when we do a show that we've commissioned ourselves, like The Principal, which is a truly Australian story, it means we've got the audience to be able to take to that type of show. We couldn't have launched (The Principal) successfully if we hadn't built up that strong regular drama audience in the 48 weeks prior.”

With many migrant communities now gaining access to programming from their homelands via the internet rather than traditional broadcast means, Kellie still feels there is an important role for SBS to fill in broadcasting LOTE content.

“You take something like 'If You Are The One', which is the Chinese dating show we have on SBS 2. That may well have started as a niche offering only watched by Chinese communities here in Australia, but now it's a far broader audience who are watching and enjoying it. That's one of the things we love to do, to take something that's a niche offering, build it up within it's own community, but then take it to the wider Australian community.”

The new SBS Food channel will launch in November and broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week on SBS 3. Content from the channel will also available to catch up online on SBS On Demand.