Les Murray tells why SBS isn’t an ethnic network

If there is one on-air personality more synonymous with SBS than any other, it is Les Murray.

He is the longest-serving face of the channel, having been with the broadcaster since day one. While he started part-time as an Hungarian subtitler, he has become “Mr. Football.”

On the channel’s 30th anniversary, Murray reflected on the highs and lows of being an alternative network. and remembers those early days.

“It was a very low budget station, the studio was very small. If you were a guitarist you had to play the guitar vertically because there wasn’t enough room to hold it properly. That’s how small it was,” he said.

“The offices were rented spacing at Milson’s Point and it grew of course. Originally the content had to be radical, radically multicultural, because that was the mandate from the government -the Charter. So it wasn’t driven at all by ratings or putting on programmes that would get big audiences. We had to put on programmes that the audience had never seen before.”

While most viewers consider SBS as a channel to bring foreign content to multicultural Australians, indeed “Bringing The World Back Home,” Murray takes a different view.

“The whole idea of SBS was to open the eyes of Australians to the rest of the world. Because up until they had only seen content from Australia itself, from the UK and from America. Those who were non-immigrant Australians were blissfully unaware of what the world was like, and that’s why SBS was set up,” he said.

“Most people believe that it was set up for the ethnics. It’s still called an ethnic station. It’s not. It was never set up for the ethnics; it was set up to tilt the balance back. To launch a television station which truly reflected the cultural diversity in Australia.

“So if you don’t have Italian cinema or French cooking programs or Brazilian football then Australians are not aware of what the culture of their fellow citizens is like.”

In 1980 when the channel launched, Australian society still clung to European roots.

“To eat roast beef on a Sunday for lunch or hand out the Christmas presents on Sunday morning, these are British traditions. They are not the traditions of every Australian,” said Murray.

“So the Australian people needed to be enlightened and re-educated about the cultures from which they came. So for example I wanted to see Hungarian movies on SBS not for my own benefit, but to show other Australians the quality of Hungarian cinema.”

Just as debate rages about the purpose and execution of SBS today, so too was there division in its earliest existence.

“Bruce Gyngell, who set up the network, was very smart and he saw this straight away. And there were a lot of complaints even in those days: ‘Why do we run so much French cinemas and never any Greek movies, there are an awful lot more Greeks in Australia than there are French?’

“But that wasn’t the point. French cinema was good. It was just very high quality and that’s why we ran them.

“And it was the same story with football. We used to bring in football from Argentina,  Brazil, Spain, Italy, but never from Greece because even though there was a huge Greek community it wasn’t top quality.

“So our view was we should strive to bring in the best football possible, the best quality football. And if that happens to be Argentinean or Italian or German or Spanish then we brought it in irrespective of the size of the communities.”

Thirty years on, multicultural Australians are no longer just minority clusters, becoming broad audiences to commercial networks in their own right. The definition of multi-cultures is no longer exclusively language-based, with culture now represented by diverse audiences of seniors, youth, gay viewers and more.

“Australia changed enormously in that 30 years and SBS has had a lot to do with that change,” said Murray. “But SBS also had to move with the times. SBS had to have audiences otherwise it would be under threat, because it’s government funded network so there’s always the possibility that somebody out there, some politician or whatever is going to say ‘what a waste of money.'”

In the three decades he has sought to bring the game of Football to audiences, Murray admits he has been approached by other networks. But he has stuck with SBS because it shares his love of the game.

“I’ve had conversations down the years, even with the ABC, but I was never tempted to leave SBS because I just wasn’t confident that they believed in what I was doing,” he said.

“I think the most comforting thing for me at SBS for 30 years has been that management, and that’s all the way up to the Board and the Chairman, always supported what I did which is to promote football and to persevere with football as a major big ticket item in our content.

“So all the brave steps that we took like buying the World Cup rights back in 1990 was a huge risk but they backed it. To go to another station particularly a commercial station would be such a different culture I’m not sure I would’ve fitted in. Or at least I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten the unlimited support that I got for persevering with football at SBS.”

As for a career highlight, Murray looks no further than Australia qualifying for the World Cup.

“The World Cup is invariably the biggest event that we do and that I’ve done. I’ve done others like the Tour de France and other fantastic events but the World Cup is the biggest. When we started doing the World Cup in 1986 we shared it with the ABC because the ABC didn’t want to run all the games and we put up our hands and said ‘We’ll run whatever you don’t run.’

“So the audience was able to see almost the entire World Cup across 2 television stations. But all those years of fantastic growth in audiences were very frustrating because Australia never qualified. All these heart breaks all the time, losing the last qualifying match and all that.

“Then the big bubble burst in 2005 when Australia did qualify for the World Cup of 2006 and that was the pinnacle, that was the cathartic moment in my career.”

As to his future, Murray isn’t going anywhere soon, having recently signed a new deal with the network.

“I’ve just agreed to a new four year contract at SBS which will take me through to the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014. What I’m going to do beyond that it’s really too early to say but I’m enjoying it and I’m still loving it as much as I did when I first started.

“SBS did a two World Cup deal (with FIFA) which I was part of negotiating for 2010 and 2014 so after 2014 it’s up for grabs again.

“I think FIFA has a very high respect for what SBS does and what SBS did for the game over the last 30 years, so I don’t think they would lose any sleep over us having it again. But that’s not guaranteed by any means.”

18 Comments:

  1. I love SBS it has some great programmes both in LOTE and English. All I would say is the Government just needs to fund it properly and get rid of the ads!

    But I would like them to stay as SBS1 and SBS2, anything more will be a stretch.

    Happy 30th SBS!

  2. I think SBS is fine as it is, even though there is room for improvement, it’s at least unique and different from the majority of other channels. Happy birthday SBS!!

  3. Since when are dodgy British cooking shows bringing the best back to Australia?

    It’s a choice to source cheap content that doesn’t put the white grocery buyer off i.e spoken in english and non offensive – food. SBS is no more interesting than ABC or commercial FTA at times and can’t seem to have a news program that avoids more and more jingoism in the sports report and corny / phoney interactions amongst the co-hosts. Danish/Norweigan police based dramas hardly set the world on fire because you’re watching NCIS Olso or Cops LAC Copenhagen in reality – neither thrilling

    Cutting Edge used to be a program but it need a Soft Bits show to reflect the current output.

  4. Congrats SBS on 30 years…what a great little station.

    As for Top Gear…well SBS did all the hard ground work,built the audience year in year out,Top Gear Australia etc – would 9 have done any of this….no

    Top Gears success in Australia is due wholly and solely to SBS.

  5. Armchair Analyst

    I was thinking over the weekend and i thought of this. Maybe James Packer should buy SBS. This would be a perfect solution, to both of their ambitions or problems, but i know that will not happen, the chances of that happening are like the chances of Network Bosses knowing what we want and they do not. But i can dream cant i?

  6. The SBS has become a farce. It *used* to show interesting programs reflecting other cultures, now it just shows repeats of popularist mainstream pap except in another language. It *used* to have a decent news program. Half their content is agenda based soccer promotion. It’s time has passed, their channels should be released to the ABC so we can have more decent Advertising Free television.

  7. Okay first David, that mantra about education and showing multiculturalism by the SBS still exists so my point is still valid. Nobody needs the SBS for their multicultural fix, and even if they did they would be getting a horribly skewed, biased representation mostly of third rate drivel.

    No way did Top Gear do as well as on SBS as it is on Nine. Also the Australian Top Gear did fail. When I used the term Top Gear I was taking about the whole brand, and yes it did flounder. I can’t find much ratings info from back then, but I did find this figure 931,000 (TG week 5 2009). That figure before all of the newly established commercial digital channels is pretty pitiful considering nine has doubled that figure on some occassions in the new TV landscape with more ads. I guess we view different thresholds of success.

    David, the ratings do not lie. When it barely beats commercial digital channels that have been around just over a year (compared to SBS 30 years to build a brand and viewer loyalty), it says that the SBS is pretty much irrelevant to most Australians.

    @Dave, sorry to disappoint your bigoted stereotype but I have never watched Today Tonight.

    • No argument Top Gear has pulled bigger numbers on Nine than SBS, but I don’t view that as an SBS failing so much as the size of network audiences. I have also written just yesterday than it is under siege from digitals. But that still doesn’t mean aside from football nobody cares about the channel. I agree we view different measures of success. McDonald’s sells a lot of burgers, but I’d hate it to be my sole diet.

  8. Excellent interview, and congratulations to Les and SBS on 30 years.

    Interesting comments from Mr Murray but I would suggest that he is re-writing history a tiny bit as regarding SBS as not being for the diverse communities in Australia but rather presenting the best international television to Australians. I think Channel 0 was started with an aim of providing a combination of both.

    But with Les’ comments in mind, does SBS think it is still giving us the best in international television? There is such a vast source of international television but SBS1 continues to be dominated by English-language programming, and a line-up heavy in documentaries and current affairs with some US and UK drama thrown in. SBS2 has more foreign content but not much apart from news and movies. Where are the international drama series, or the comedies or even the music programs from overseas? Or children’s programming? Just playing foreign-language movies (some of them being repeated many times) or daytime news is not enough if SBS considers itself a multicultural broadcaster. 30 years on it needs to (to use Les’s words) “tilt the balance” back to presenting international television.

  9. From a white anglo, 7th generation australian. SBS is awesome. from its soccer to its doccos. never want any major events that australia is in to go to commercial, or even pay tv networks.

  10. I would love to see the ‘Lazlo Murray Show’.
    No not Football but a music show, in the vain of the ‘Later… with Jools Holland’

    Interview the music guests and then a bit of a croon with them at the end.

  11. What a patronising man. So if you don’t watch SBS you are completely naive to multicultural views and beliefs and live in your own ignorant bubble?

    I’m sure Australia would have survived without the glorious SBS. I mean some harp on about what an institution it is but apart from football no one really gives a stuff about it. Case in point, Top Gear. It floundered on the SBS yet prospered on commercial, because SBS’s brand of ethnic programming had a detrimental effect.

    SBS has influenced the shape of Australia? No Les, you’d like to think that to justify your horrendously niche and kitsch programmes that are no longer appealing to anyone much, but then again they never really have.

    SBS is outdated, no longer relevant to most Australians and pig ignorant. The sooner it implodes the better all taxpayers will be.

    • Les was talking about thirty years ago. I think it has done a lot to broaden views on diversity. Top Gear didn’t flounder on SBS. At its height it was knocking off some commercial competition. To say nobody gives a stuff about it aside from football is also a pretty broad generalisation, but each to his own…

  12. A true legend of Australian football, along with Johnny Warren he is a man who has been vital to bringing the best sport in the world to Australia’s forefront.

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