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.”