As Australians warm to digital television before its official takeover in 2013, community broadcasters are watching their analogue programming wither on the vine.
“Our fortunes are directly linked with getting a digital licence, and the uncertainty of when that’ll happen is killing us,” Richard McLelland, General Manager of Melbourne’s Channel 31, told Crikey.
Channel 31 Melbourne — still broadcasting in analogue — has lost 20 per cent of its audience this year as digital set top boxes start infiltrating Australian lounge rooms.
While SBS and ABC have been allocated space on the digital network, which will replace analogue services completely by the end of 2013, community broadcasters are still waiting for a slice of digital spectrum.
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“The community television sector is marooned on the analogue service, so as the Federal Government is successful in persuading viewers to move across to digital, our audience is diminishing and you can see the direct link with sponsors,” said McLelland.
Sponsorship is Channel 31’s main source of income, since the Victorian Government’s support has fallen by 85 per cent to less than $90,000 over the last 15 months.
“The Rudd Government inherited a flawed system that made no room for community television,” Laurie Patton, Chief Executive of Sydney’s local broadcaster TVS and spokesperson for the Australian Community Television Alliance, told Crikey .
A representative from Stephen Conroy’s Ministry of Communications told Crikey that community stations are guaranteed digital spectrum, but the package they’ll be offered is still under construction. Broadcasters are hoping the options will be more clearly outlined in a yet-to-be-released Green Paper on the future of community television, which was marked for publication on July 31 this year.
“We’ve been hearing that the Government is on its way to announcing a digital changeover for a while. A number of dates have been earmarked, like the budget, but that goes back to June and we’re still waiting,” Paul Mills, CEO of Queensland’s local broadcaster QCTV told Crikey.
Like Channel 31, QCTV is having trouble building its audience amid the changeover uncertainty. “We’re stuck in limbo and as long as we’re waiting we can’t make any plans for future programming,” said Mills.
The move from analogue to digital will add up to ten extra channels to the original five free-to-airs, but with reruns and international sport now filling most of the extra space, it won’t be hard for quantity to eclipse quality in the digital revolution.
“Commercial networks won’t be putting money into Australian content, they’ll be importing content from overseas, so [making] community television the only new source of local programming.” said Patton.
Channel 31 in Melbourne alone produces 95 Australian shows each week, with 2.5 hours a day reserved for youth television.
TVS in Sydney broadcasts 75% local content, and aims to make that around 80-90% over the next couple of years.
“An increase in television channels is a good reason why we have to continue to fund Australian programming. We need a balance so we don’t lose that sense of ‘Australianness’ reflected through TV, where we can see things about out culture that we can celebrate and also be analytical about,” Dr Wendy Davis, media and education research fellow at Central Queensland University, told Crikey.
“The Government needs to recognise that TV remains central to our culture whether we like it or not.”