Thang Ngo knows what it is like to change roles in and out of the workplace. Currently, he is the Strategy and Planning Manager of Audio and Language Content at SBS. Before that, Thang worked on the commercial side of SBS. Outside of work, Thang has gained recognition from his popular food blog Noodlies, which highlights local Sydney restaurants and eateries. As result, he also writes for SBS’s new food magazine, Feast (his story is featured in the second issue hitting shelves on September 5th). This week, arts interview talks to Thang about both his ever changing roles and the role SBS has played within the Australian community.
Interview by Rebecca Rossman
What roles does SBS play within the community?
SBS as a corporation started with SBS radio over 35 years ago. At the time the government had created universal healthcare but they did not know how to communicate that message across to people, especially those who speak little English. SBS radio was established to communicate important information from the government, like universal healthcare, to the general public. Five years later SBS expanded into TV.
The slogan back then was ‘bringing the world back home.’ During this time, many people migrated to Australia were still interested in news from their homeland. There are needs for them to reconnect with what was happening in their home countries. That was kind of the inspiration for SBS 35 years ago, and it is interesting for SBS to see the role it has played within the community all these years.
What challenges does this create?
At SBS we have the same challenges in terms of media fragmentation as anyone else. People are not watching TV as much and media is nonlinear. People want to consume on a platform, and at a time that is convenient for them. In terms of SBS radio, it is extra challenging because we are no longer the leader in ‘bringing the world back home’ for the community. You can access the news directly from your home country; information that is much more in depth and quicker than what we can provide. For example, everyone was watching the news on NZ earthquake online or on TV by NZ home broadcasters. They are on the ground; they know the place and can get the news much faster. It creates a challenge for us now after 35 years: How do we remain relevant? How do we do our jobs?
At SBS, we have been trying to figure out what ground we own and ironically for us we are now going back to the original charter of providing key information to the community about Australia such as the healthcare service, the carbon tax, and changes to family allowance. All of those things are important to the community here and all of those things would not be covered by the homeland broadcaster. It is a way of carving a niche for ourselves.
How has your journey (previous roles) impact what you do now?
I have always been within the ‘evil’ side of SBS which is the commercial side. To give you a quick background: approximately 80% of our income comes from the government and 20% from commercial activity. The issue we have is that the government does not increase liberal funding every year but content increases on the enterprise side. In real terms, the funding is actually decreasing. Because of this we are trying to get more commercial revenue to supplement it. What I try to tell people is that the money generated on the commercial side pumps back into the content side so that we can actually make shows. So I always see “commercial” as the greater good. Because people can access information freely online, you do need to do something that will compel them, keep them watching and that costs money.
An example of this is a program called Go back to where you came from. We put 6 ordinary Australians with diverse views around the asylum seekers on a boat and they go on the journey backwards from Australia to Afghanistan. You can imagine the logistical nightmare in doing that and how much that would cost. Not to mention the insurance waivers and getting approval of going back to the countries. All that cannot be made without funding.
As of my journey now that I am on the content side, I have actually been appreciating how important content is to SBS survival. In the past I was more focused on bringing in the money to make the content, and I think what we are heading for is distinct content.
So do you feel people should have a chance to work on both the content side as well as commercial side?
Yes, I think so. I feel that I have a more balanced view because of my experience in dealing with both sides. When I used to ask the question “oh why can’t we do this?” I now can see why. So it is a good balancing act. However, I think people in content should see how hard it is to generate funding to make the content. Any independent producer knows that. But I think this is the difference with SBS, we do not necessarily have to go get the funds ourselves.
Content is also important. The level of competition is so much broader than in the past. With newspapers, radio, internet, satellite TV, etc. people can go to many different places to get their news. This is why we need to focus on what we are about and what we do to provide that key service.
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