C31 Melbourne has been promised time and again that this Federal Budget would finally deliver the much delayed digital solution for community television. Despite Senator Conroy, as recently as March this year, stating “We don’t want them [community television] to close because of a lack of willingness to transition them into the digital world. We’re not going to leave them behind”, community television finds that it has been once again been left behind. So now we know the true value of a politician’s promise.

C31 Melbourne’s community producers are feeling discouraged and disappointed, as it seems that the government has no faith in community television and is not interested in maintaining the media diversity that C31 Melbourne provides. With the prospect of C31 Melbourne losing viewers as more people convert to digital, it is harder for our many volunteer producers to maintain the passion that drives them to create television.

All the other television broadcasters, commercial and national, were allocated a second channel of broadcasting spectrum in 2001 at no cost so that they could commence broadcasting in digital. Governments past and present have continually refused to provide community television with the spectrum necessary to go digital. All C31 Melbourne is asking for is a level playing field; to have parity with the other television broadcasters.

It is not a lack of available broadcasting spectrum that is stopping C31 Melbourne from going digital. Channels A and B were reserved by the previous government for datacasting services, but Senator Conroy has stated that they will not be used in the foreseeable future. There is also a third channel available in some states, including Melbourne, which is unassigned. Any of this unused spectrum could be allocated to C31 Melbourne tomorrow so we could start moving to digital.

The cost of transitioning C31 Melbourne to digital would be minimal; we could install the equipment required to transmit in digital for less than $2 million, with ongoing costs of just $120,000 per year until analogue switch off in 2013. $1billion has been set aside to assist the ABC and SBS in converting to digital and the regional commercial television operators are able to claim an offset on their licence fees of up to $250 million. The amount needed to convert community television to digital is peanuts in comparison, but the government begrudges us even that.

This government is willing to pour money into schemes to try to convince the viewing public to convert to digital television, whilst overlooking the main driver of digital conversion: content. C31 Melbourne believes that making its wide array of unique locally-produced content available on digital would be an excellent stimulus to digital take-up.

C31 Melbourne is currently exploring its options, including what legal action may be possible, in order to achieve a timely transition to digital broadcasting. We hope that the government realises that community television is a valuable part of the broadcasting landscape that deserves to survive into the digital age.

Peter Fray

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