SBS and the Tour de France: Michael Ebeid Interview
The Tour and the broadcaster…
There has been a long history between the Special Broadcasting Service, SBS, and the Tour de France. Many fans of cycling in Australia can thank the network for introducing them to racing, initially with broadcasts of the Tour de France – from the highlights packages that began being shown back in 1990, to the live coverage that we know today.
SBS is proud of its association with cycling and that’s reflected by the network’s broadcast schedule which continues to introduce new content showing racing from around the world. Furthermore, it has a commitment to a weekly round-up with its Cycling Central show and website.
The innovations with multimedia are multifaceted and the inclusion of the Social Hub on the Cycling Central site as well as regular updates on its various social media options including Facebook and Twitter.
During the Tour de France, SBS also uses the Tour Tracker App that enables viewers to follow the action no matter where they are.
Amongst the staff at SBS there is a wealth of experience within the cycling world; this year marks the 18th successive Tour de France for the regular host Michael Tomalaris who is joined on the race by a cast of co-hosts, commentators, producers, cameramen, and others who are equally as passionate about the topic as ‘Tommo’.
Most Australians recognise Tomalaris as the face of the SBS coverage. He has become a cyclist because of his enthusiasm for the topic he covers but there are many others behind the scenes at the network who help bring the Tour – and many other cycling events – to our TV screens throughout the year.
Cycling has been through a lot in recent years but the support from SBS is unwavering.
To find out how important cycling is to the sports coverage at SBS and to get a better insight into the culture of the network, Rob Arnold met with the managing director, Michael Ebeid, at the end of March. Here is a transcript of some of that interview.
RIDE: Cycling – as a recreation and a sport – is a lot different in Australia to when SBS first started broadcasting the Tour de France in 1990. Personally, when did you start paying attention to cycling?
Michael Ebeid: “I joined SBS two years ago (June 2011) and a month afterwards we had the 2011 Tour de France which was such a big plank for us. I had certainly been a viewer of the Tour for a couple of years before that and had always enjoyed it. I thought it was such an amazing spectacle of a program that gave you a lot more than just cycling – and this is one of the things that all our viewers love about the race.
“But I certainly emerged myself in that 2011 race – the big year with Cadel winning – so there was extra excitement. We built off the success of 2011 last year with an even bigger offering in terms of all the additional stuff that we did with the [Tour Tracker] app and the whole multi-platform offering that we now do. And we’ll continue to do that this year as well.”
RIDE: So the coverage will be enhanced even further for the 100th edition?
Ebeid: “Absolutely. This year we’ll be enhancing quite a few of the features with the Tour Tracker and the apps that we’ve got will have better functionality with some of the replays. We’ll doing more live streaming. We’ll be doing a bit more of the social element as well – building the Social Hub to make it even more of an engaging sort of program.
“We know that the viewers love talking about the Tour; talking to other cyclists about it, getting involved with the community – it’s a real community feel. And so we’re aiming to make sure that we really enhance that functionality part of it. That’s going to be quite exciting as well.”
RIDE: I’m curious about the online as I’ve written the live coverage for the official site of the race since 1998. It’s fun to do. I’ve now covered 320 Tour stages (and counting) and I’ve called them all live with updates, in essence, every three or four minutes. In terms of the online audience, is that a ratings winner for SBS?
Ebeid: “It’s certainly a big growth area which our audiences love. Last year we had our biggest online audience ever. At one point, I think, the highest was around the 700,000 UVs (unique views) which is great…”
“Those figures are for the three weeks over the course of the race. That’s the online UVs but there was something like 8.4 million page impressions over the last Tour. In terms of the daily UVs, we would get up to around 90,000 for a stage which is very impressive. It’s great.”
RIDE: There are always comparisons made between the Olympics, World Cup football and the Tour de France. The Tour is said to be “the biggest annual sporting event in the world”… so how does it compare with your figures during the World Cup coverage?
Ebeid: “For SBS, the Tour is still our biggest sporting program. The World Cup, which is only once every four years, is bigger obviously but it’s certainly not an every-year program. So we still think of the Tour de France as the jewel in our sports offering; the World Cup is great but it’s once every four years – and, of course, that is bigger.
“The other thing, of course, is that we’ve got over 200,000 mobile downloads of the app now. And that will probably grow again this year.”
RIDE: And it’s free?
Ebeid: “Yes, absolutely.
“The temptation to charge is there but I don’t think that’s part of our offering. I mean we’re there for the audience. We don’t do the Tour to make money on it; we do the Tour because we believe in it – we believe in the sport, we’ve been an integral part of growing cycling in Australia for the last 20 years – so we’ll continue to treat that community with absolute respect.”
RIDE: What was your sport before you came to SBS?
Ebeid: “I am actually a cyclist. Not a mad keen one but…”
RIDE: Shaved legs and all…?
Ebeid: “No, I’m not that keen.
“I’m just a recreational cyclist. I’ve never ever done cycling professionally or raced or anything like that. I’ve always been a fair-weather cyclist.”
RIDE: What do you ride – that’s a real question for regular readers…
Ebeid: “I ride an Avanti road bike.
“I had a period of about 15 years of being off the bike and I rediscovered it about three years ago and really enjoyed it. In fact, I’ve just started riding to work as well which is kind of interesting because you’ve got to get into a whole different routine. I’m enjoying commuting on a bike as well, which is good fun.
“I probably ride to work twice a week.”
RIDE: It puts you in touch with your audience…
Ebeid: “Yeah, it does. And the annual event that we do every year, the Multiple Sclerosis Sydney to Wollongong, I’ve done it for the last couple of years and that’s definitely the longest ride I’ve ever done: 100km, from my place, and I love it. It’s a real personal-best sort of feeling that you get.
“Last year we had 162 riders in our SBS team which was just brilliant – to be able to ride with our team, all in uniform… it’s a great team-building thing too, for us corporately. It really emphasises the importance that cycling is to SBS.
“If you ever walk into SBS during the weeks leading up to the Tour and during the Tour, our entire lobby and atrium area is all decked out in yellow. We get the whole company into the Tour. We’ll have bikes set up and we have races at lunch time between staff. We do lots of fun stuff like that that really gets everyone into the Tour mood, if you like. It’s really good and everyone gets behind it.”
RIDE: Is that one of your initiatives?
Ebeid: “Ah, actually no: I won’t take credit for that. One of the things that I like to do is, for all our key programming, get all our employees behind what we’re doing.
“My initiative is to say to people, ‘Let’s get all our employees involved in the various bits of content’, and then the sports group would have put this together with our marketing team. And they would have come up with the initiatives.
“A lot of the riders that we had in the ’Gong ride, many of them are once-a-year riders. And I think it’s great to get them started; a number of people have said to me, ‘I had such a great time, I’m now going to ride more!’ Or the number of people who have gone and bought bikes just for that one event is terrific.”
RIDE: It’s a good corporate idea – to give them a taste by doing that one, targeted ride…
Ebeid: “We were the biggest corporate team last year… and we raised the most funds. And we’re proud of that.”
RIDE: I wonder if – apart from the day in November – there are any other workplace initiatives to encourage staff to ride? Looking at it not from a network or broadcaster point of view, but as a corporation: are there any special facilities – lockers or bike storage facilities – to make it easier for them to ride to work?
Ebeid: “We do encourage cycling to work. I couldn’t tell you the numbers but there are a lot of bikes out there.
“We redesigned the carpark to have a bike section and there are a lot of riders. There are also showers and locker rooms. I know there are many employees who ride to work. It’s a healthy way to get to work.
“We do encourage it and we’ve got the facilities for people to do that.
“Many of the people who work on the online platforms – the mobile apps, the social hub – many of them are riders and it’s great that that is the case because they’re closer and have got an affinity with the content that they’re working on.”
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RIDE: I remember being in Grenoble at the end of the 20th stage of the 2011 Tour de France and Cadel Evans had been asked what his original inspiration was. He cited, pretty much categorically, that it was SBS’s broadcast that lured him into cycling. How do you respond to that?
Ebeid: “I remember that very clearly. I was at home watching it when he said that and it was terrific. I felt so much pride, I guess, in what the organisation has done for cycling over the years and for the Tour particularly. I don’t think any other network would have invested as much as we have over a 23-year period and built it up to what we have today.
“At that moment of stage 20, when we all realised that Cadel was about to do what he did – win the Tour – we had, at midnight, a peak of about two million viewers. At midnight! That’s phenomenal for an Australian TV audience, let alone SBS. It was a really proud moment to be able to have that many Australians at midnight tuned in watching our Cadel. It was really good to see.”
RIDE: I noticed that you went live with netball coverage in March. In the Australian sporting context, it’s as though you like bringing in the underling in terms of TV coverage, not participation, and making it mainsteam…
Ebeid: “Absolutely. That’s what a public broadcaster should do. And I’m particularly excited about doing so much for women’s sport as well and bringing one of the leading women’s sport – like netball – onto a free-to-air platform. I think it’s incredibly important for Australia and for women’s sports. I hope that we can grow netball over the years.
“It’s also about sports that unite communities. Netball is one of those sports – like football, like cycling – that bring people together in communities. That’s an important part of SBS’s charter: it’s about communities and what we can do to make communities more harmonious – and sport is a great way to do that.
“That’s why the organisation has been behind cycling and will continue to be behind cycling.
“There was a lot of questions around the whole Lance Armstrong thing, for example. People said to us, ‘Is this going to now damage the brand and will you continue supporting cycling?’ And my answer to that is: absolutely!
“We have never waivered and during the whole Lance Armstrong thing, we never once – even remotely – considered to not be behind cycling. It was never an option.
“It was also, in a way, ancient history. When you look at the claims that were being made it was around the period that was 10 years ago, roughly, and in many ways I think the sport has cleaned itself up a lot over the last five years. I don’t think it’ll impact people’s love of cycling. I don’t think it will impact our viewership of cycling at all.”
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RIDE: How do we classify SBS? ABC, we know, is a public broadcaster. SBS is a public broadcaster but it’s got a commercial aspect.
Ebeid: “SBS as an organisation is an independent statutory authority so we are an independent organisation. We are not a government department so we’re not public servants from that perspective. We are a regular organisation that does get funding from the government but we’re our own corporation.
“We have a charter that is set out by the ‘SBS Act’ – so we have our own legislative act – and that charter tells us that, as part of our broadcasting of radio and television services, we’re to reflect Australia’s multiculturalism and, in so doing, promoting that.
“So a large part of what we do is about getting all Australians to understand and appreciate other cultures, understanding each other, providing linguistic services – particularly through our radio services where we have 74 different languages that we do programs for.
“A lot of people only see one side of SBS which is just the TV side of it. But we have a big radio division across several networks: AM, FM and we’ve now got a couple of digital radio stations as well, and they include music stations like Pop Asia which is all dedicated to Asian pop music etc.
“And of course we have a huge online presence where SBS On Demand now makes up for a lot of our viewing. We have something like four million video views a month where people will go online and watch TV shows they missed or they watch it for the first time on a platform or a device when they want to. So it’s a huge growth area of us at the moment.
“The other part of our business is a big distribution, and the food magazine Feast, as well as DVD distribution, CDs and program sales – international program sales where we sell some of our content. Like ‘Go back to where you came from’, we sold it to 15 countries around the world and we also sold the format rights to, I think, eight countries where they are now making their own ‘Go back…’ – in their own language with their own citizens. This is an exciting thing when program like ‘Go back…’ gets picked up.
“That’s, broadly, the organisation.
“Our charter is very different to the ABC in that we do focus on our multicultural Australia, promoting communities, promoting cohesion through our content and that’s what we’re all about. That’s why, in terms of sport, I focus around those sports that build communities that bring people together, that create or contribute to social harmony.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold (25 March 2013)
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RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.