SBS still serving up good things

I was living in North Wollongong when SBS Channel 0 started transmission on 24 October 1980. We could just about pick up the signal from Sydney. Over the years it offered an excellent news service (still does) and heaps of movies from every corner of the globe, South American and Egyptian soap operas, documentaries, and football (soccer). It was blissfully commercial-free, but no longer.

The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) is a hybrid-funded Australian public broadcasting radio, online, and television network. SBS operates four TV channels (SBS, SBS 2, NITV and Food Network) and five radio networks (SBS Radio One, TWO & Three, SBS Chill and SBS PopAsia). SBS Online ( is home to SBS On Demand video streaming service. The stated purpose of SBS is “to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society”

Shame about the Food Network though: what a waste.

In recent years programming has featured many documentaries ranging from the very ordinary to the outstanding. Some have been home-grown, but increasingly UK and European sources figure.  Just lately:

Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King could have been a bit of a dog of a program, but was actually rather interesting.

I had thought from the juicy title, Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King (Channel 4), that this would be about some mad scheme like the request from the newspaper man Cecil King to Earl Mountbatten of Burma in May 1968 to become titular head of an emergency government if blood ran in the streets under Harold Wilson’s rule.

The nearest this documentary by Richard Sanders came to such a loony venture was in digging up a suggestion made by the deeply suspect Kenneth de Courcy to the exiled Duke of Windsor in 1946, encouraging him to become regent if George VI grew too ill….


The young Prince Philip

Not the kind of thing SBS would have broadcast in its heyday though.

SBS has become rather famous for its seeming obsession with Nazis. Sometimes it is well worth watching, as the recent German/Polish The Invasion: The Outbreak of World War II. I found the detail very informative.

On 1 September 1939, Hitler started the most fatal war in world history. With the invasion of Poland, Hitler aimed to destroy the military force of the neighbouring country and deprive its people of their livelihood. The first part of the German-Polish series reconstructs how Hitler triggered a chain of events that sparked a global conflagration. At the centre of the second part is the intense suffering of the Polish people, the first victims of the war.

Back in 1988-9 I was teaching Ancient History, one part of the course being the Julio-Claudians as seen in Tacitus. How useful Catherine Edwards’s Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome would have been then! Last Sunday SBS showed:

Professor Catharine Edwards explores the dramatic lives of two women at the heart of power in 1st-century imperial Rome. One is Messalina, whose scandalous reputation lives on 2,000 years after her bloody and dramatic death. The other is Agrippina – sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero – an extraordinary woman who was not only a skilled and ambitious politician but also a murderer and ultimately a murder victim.


Agrippina crowning her young son Nero (c. 54–59 AD)

Lately though I have been most impressed by The Mekong River with Sue Perkins. This reviewer had reservations:

Like many incurable travel romantics, I was looking forward to tuning in to the four-part BBC2 series on the Mekong River, fronted by the Great British Bake-off supremo, Sue Perkins…

For a start I confess am not a huge fan of celebrity-driven travel programmes that take as their starting point the premise that the person presenting the programme is more interesting than the subject matter itself. Of course Sue Perkins is more pleasing on the eye – and considerably more witty – than some of her peers, but did we really need to see and hear quite so much of her – at the expense of the fabulous scenery and people of Laos themselves?…

To her credit, she tackled the big issues head on: the poverty and the lack of educational opportunity (there was a fun scene where Sue jumped on board a floating library bringing books to scores of cheering village children); the threat to a seemingly idyllic and unchanged existence of a giant hydroelectric dam project; most vividly of all, she entered an extraordinarily gaudy casino (complete with model of Zeus and reproductions of paintings by Michelangelo) built primarily to serve the needs of a Chinese community that, increasingly (and frighteningly), is making its presence felt as the region’s undisputed superpower…

But there was something slightly superficial about it all and it felt rather rushed (if there was one thing I learned on my trip it was that at some point you just have to slow down and go with the flow). My wife, who has not been to Laos, watching with me, similarly would have liked more substance.

Of course this is TV at a prime slot on a Sunday night and it needs a face (and not just a pretty one) to draw in the viewers and not to get weighed down with detail…

Ouch! But if he thought Sue Perkins superficial what would he have made of the extended Scenic Tours infomercial called Getaway that we have here in Oz?  That dealt with the Mekong too.

David was particularly thrilled as one of his life ambitions was to travel on the great rivers of the world.  So far, he has ticked off The Thames, The Yarra, The Parramatta and cruising the Mekong in such style was a treat.

The four night journey from Cambodia to Vietnam gives the best opportunity to experience all that the amazing river offers.  Traditional villages, history and cultures, seeing it come to life at dawn and relish glorious sunsets are all part of the journey…

Locals were interested in the Scenic visitors as their world is not part of the tourist trail.  It was indeed an honour to be invited into a home.  In traditional colours, a newly-acquired television stood pride of place, second to a shrine dedicated to deceased ancestors.

The visit really gave credence to the many benefits of travelling with Scenic.  Spending time with locals and particularly being invited into their homes gave a rare insight into the way locals live…

Mind you, there actually is some background history in that piece too, but Sue Perkins looks considerably less superficial, mainly because her focus is on exploring the place, the cultures, and yes herself, not on selling a packaged tour.

You can find some of these and other SBS offerings at SBS On Demand.


From The Mekong River with Sue Perkins


One thought on “SBS still serving up good things

  1. Golden age of SBS I’d say was in the early noughties – maybe going back a bit further than that- when they broadcast a feature film every night (“World Game” allowing) at 10pm – .

    Once SBS got into bed with Rupert to deliver World Movies as a channel on his Pay TV there was a conflict of motives/interests. Free-to-air offerings are now sadly diminished, even allowing for their being too thinly-spread over the multiple channels.

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