Crikey has stumbled upon documents that fell off the back of a truck, revealing how an Australian company is trying to share in the mega profits shared by the 7, 9 and 10 television networks. Developer Ted Sent, who pays himself millions of dollars in salaries and commissions each year from Primelife Corporation, is keen to play TV boss. But will he get mangled in the process by Big Kerry Packer and Little Kerry Stokes?

Crikey has received documents that show that Lifestyle Media International Pty Ltd is trying to buy control of Australia’s community television stations, on 20 year contracts, for as little as $72,000 sponsorship a year each.

Lifestyle Media International Pty Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Primelife Corporation Limited, which builds retirement villages. It is headed by the controversial Ted Sent, whose management methods regular come under press scrutiny. The firm is this week attempting to bully its way into controlling Adelaide’s troubled ‘ACE’ community station, after already gaining substantial control over the Channel 31 stations in Melbourne and Sydney.

The company is already on TV in Melbourne with its Renaissance channel, by leasing the community Channel 31 signal from 8.00 am to 4.00 pm, Monday to Friday, and using free volunteer labour at RMIT. Renaissance provides all programming, liberally sprinkled with advertisements for Primelife retirement homes. In a bid to gain some respectability in the marketplace, Renaissance is chaired in Melbourne by former Premier Sir Rupert ‘Dick’ Hamer.

The Renaissance concept expands to Sydney from next Monday, in a similar deal where the developer pays a pittance to the cash poor community-run TV station in return for program hours, and business control of the station through a jointly owned “operations company”. It is using Sydney names such as Ita Buttrose and Belinda Green to launch the station.

This week’s real story, however, is in Adelaide where the community volunteers are refusing to sign Primelife’s commercial agreement without a fight.

The Adelaide community television station licence is held by Adelaide Community and Educational Television Inc., which has studios at Fullarton Road, Norwood. The station goes to air on UHF Channel 31, and beams from a transmitter in the Adelaide Hills owned by NTL. It has also, admittedly, had its own share of troubles and controversy, some of it self imposed.

Primelife is pressuring ACE TV boss Rita Freeman to this week sign a sponsorship agreement which transfers much the station’s control and airtime, until as late as 2027. The station is currently off-air, and is under financial pressure to pay $38,000 in arrears to transmitter owner NTL Telecommunications, before the signal is reinstated by NTL.

Without a signal, the station is starving. If the channel does not resume transmission soon, it risks having its licence cancelled by the ABA.

NTL is also proposing increasing its annual fees by more than double to $170,000. Of course, NTL is not permitting anyone from Channel 31 close to the transmitter for repairs, until it sees the cash.

Coincidentally, enter Primelife. Yes, ACE, we’ll lend you the money, with only vague conditions for repayment later on. Yes, we’ll pay you $72,000 a year (that is just $1385 a week). There might even be a profit share from our revenue if its reaches certain levels. But there are just a few conditions.

* “ACE agrees to broadcast Lifestyle’s programming.” (Clause F)

ACE, under the agreement, is being forced to hand over its programming control to a commercial company. It is not sure how the Australian Broadcasting Authority regards this in regard to community television. Elsewhere, community radio stations have lost their licences, for instance, where commercial companies were seen to have programming control. * “ACE must give Lifestyle an option to purchase any non community air time at the going rate … until ACE and Lifestyle agree to the contrary the going rate for non community air time shall be determined … giving Lifestyle the first and the last option to purchase any non community air time.” (Clause 7.11)

This means existing ACE programs can be overrun by Lifestyle paying a ‘going rate’, whatever it decides it to be.

* “ACE must not edit or alter the programming without the consent of Lifestyle.” (Clause 7.2)

The community TV station has to surrender its right to manage its own station, under the conditions being imposed by the Lifestyle “sponsorship agreement”.

* “ACE hereby appoints Lifestyle as its agent to negotiate on ACE’s behalf … Transmission Services Agreements with NTL to improve the broadcast service. For the avoiodance of doubt the appointment of Limestyle shall be ongoing and shall terminate on ACE and NTL executing any binding Transmission Services Agreement.” (Clause 3.1)

Primelife is effectively asking for unrestricted, timeless ‘Power of Attorney’ over the television station’s ability to negotiate its own transmission requirements. Hardly the desire of a company that simply wants ‘sponsorship’.

* “ACE must match in kind on a 50%/50% basis Lifestyle expenditure on in kind promotional activities undertaken to raise awareness of Renaissance TV and Channel 31 in the Adelaide metropolitan market.” (Clause 7.14)

Primelife paid out more than $250,000 in press advertisements to launch Renaissance Television in Melbourne. Will the community program providers and volunteers be forced to raise $125,000 to fund press ads that ultimately flog retirement homes for Primelife?

Renaissance Television is believed to have telephoned Channel 31 Adelaide on Wednesday (June 12), and asked if the agreement had yet been signed. When told that it had not, and that changes were required, the caller predicted that the station would not be on air again until the ink hits the paper.

At risk here is the future of non-profit community television? Will Communications Minister Senator Richard Alston allow his friends at Primelife to create an extra television network in Australia by stealth?

Peter Fray

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