Yesterday SBS issued a Press Release talking up the ratings for the show stating they were “beyond delighted” with the results.
“Over the past three days, First Contact has truly shone a light on the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. SBS and the program’s producers Blackfella Films are beyond delighted that so many Australians have come together to engage in debate and discussion about an issue that effects all of us,” said SBS Director of Television, Tony Iffland.
“Audiences not only tuned in across the three channels and on SBS On Demand, but they also took to social media, which saw the program trend globally on Twitter – testament to the SBS network’s ability to lead debate and discussion.”
But nowhere in the Release was there any explanation for Sandy’s absence from the Insight special, despite her featuring prominently in pre-publicity for the show.
Her absence -after quitting the series half way through its run- was dismissed with a single line by host Stan Grant with the words “Sandy couldn’t be here tonight.” And that was that….
There was no further context on her absence. No opportunity for Indigenous members of the community to confront her on her opinions. No sign of any of the tweets by viewers asking where she was and barely any discussion by the remaining 5 about undertaking the journey with her. What did they feel when she quit the series?
— Celeste Liddle (@Utopiana) November 20, 2014
— varsha kumar (@ninjaame) November 20, 2014
— Tongan Steel™ (@Simmo_Riggs) November 20, 2014
— JLC (@TeacherJLC) November 20, 2014
After calling Aborigines slackers, Sandy didn’t complete the trip and didn’t show up tonight #FirstContactSBS
— Me me me (@laurakneen) November 20, 2014
— Wordsmith Kirsty (@KirstyD_Smith) November 20, 2014
— Darth Riker (@darthriker) November 20, 2014
More importantly, her absence left us wondering what had Sandy actually learned? Had she mellowed her views since the series?
If the premise of the show was that Australians with ignorant and racist views should reconsider their position, in Sandy’s case it was a fail. Yes, probably one self-inflicted.
Sandy may well have had a perfectly acceptable personal reason -illness, a death in the family, overseas travel- for being absent. It’s not the real issue here.
The issue is the way SBS has handled this, by failing to adequately explain her absence to its audience.
Producers, sitting in the audience, shed no light on these questions. No pre-recorded interview as a substitute. Not even Ray Martin was there to explain any of it (although he has since told us more about her initial exit in the press). These were disappointing omissions.
Yesterday an SBS spokesperson was unable to shed any more light on Sandy’s absence, telling TV Tonight, “She wasn’t able to make it.
“This is what we were told by Sandy and we had to respect that.”
It sounded like corporate-speak for “A dog ate my homework.”
SBS appears to have forgotten they invited the audience to go on a journey with them, and that this genre requires everyone to be honest about the immersive experience. If you promote a show with such strong language you owe it to your audience, and the community at its centre, to please explain. Storytelling 101.
When SBS had to pull Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl after producers had been misled by a participant, it was upfront that the doco did not meet standards and it went back to the drawing board.
In 2011 Go Back to Where You Came From’s stubborn Raquel stuck with the immersive experience against her instincts, copping a barrage of public backlash for her opinions but still fronted for a forum to indicate significant change.
By contrast, 2014’s elephant in the room has upstaged the important Indigenous debates the show so passionately sought to address.
Next time SBS offers us a show of this nature the audience would be well within its rights to ask if it’s worth investing in the show or whether they too are simply, unable to make it.