The community television industry body was blindsided by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement yesterday that the government was pushing community television off the air.

“We were never officially advised about this,” Australian Community Television Alliance president Richard McLelland told Crikey yesterday. “Getting a transcript of [Turnbull’s] speech was the first we heard about it.”

The decision to take the sixth station on the digital spectrum away from community television sent the sector scrambling yesterday, as long-running community shows contemplated their demise and those employed by the sector considered their likely unemployment. While Turnbull had been asking questions about the role of community television and making his views on the topic known for some time, few expected a decision to be reached so quickly.

At a conference held by the Australian Communications and Media Authority in Sydney, Turnbull used his speech to say “the best outcome for community television is that in future it uses the internet as its distribution platform”. The freed spectrum will be used by the rest of the free-to-air networks — the commercial stations, and perhaps the national broadcasters. Turnbull explained:

“To allow for this the government will extend current licensing arrangements until the 31st of December 2015.

“I have no doubt that this transition is in the best interests of community television. It will deliver wider audiences, at less cost on a wider range of devices and the ability to do more than linear broadcasting. Some community television representatives, acknowledging that the Internet is their ultimate home, have nonetheless argued that they should not be ‘rushed into the new media world’. The internet is not new. It is the universal uber-platform to which most people in Australia are connected 24/7.”

Community television in Australia runs without government funding, funded instead by local ads and sponsorship. However, the nation’s five community TV stations were given free access to the digital spectrum in 2010, giving them a far broader reach, as well as a higher quality of broadcast. Getting this access saved what had been flagging audiences on the previous analogue stations, but took up one of six valuable spots on the digital spectrum. Turnbull yesterday said this sixth spot would be better used to allow other providers to experiment with more efficient ways of broadcasting.

But community broadcasters say the loss of the television spectrum will send their audiences plummeting, and many fear the transition to online will unravel the community-run organisations that put hours of Australian-made content to air.

“This is so grassroots, and far more real than ‘reality TV’,” he said. “I’m livid about the decision — I think it should be stopped.”

McLelland, who in addition to his role at ACTA is also the general manager of Melbourne’s Channel 31, says the argument that community television can seamlessly transition to the internet is “disingenuous”:  “If it’s such a great broadcast medium, then why aren’t Seven, Nine and Ten making significant moves to shift their business online?” he asked. “They aren’t — though they may in the future. We are the least resourced and least capable of making such an extraordinary change to our business and distribution model, especially without any support or any reasonable amount of time to transition.”

Significant differences exist between online video and the types of content that air on community television anyway, says Michael Woods of RMITV. Affiliated with the university, RMITV books airtime for student-run shows on Channel 31, providing a training ground for emerging media talent.

Woods says online is a different production model that bears little in common with the commercial television environment many young community TV stars have gone on to work in: “You don’t make the same 24-minute TV shows online. It’s a different production and massive jump backwards from TV broadcast quality we are training people for. If Turnbull wants to put another shopping network on, well, that’s great for him. But it’s not great for Australia’s young media professionals.”

Media identities who got their start on community television include presenter Rove McManus, comedian and author Corinne Grant, Fear of a Brown Planet‘s Nazeem Hussain, radio duo Hamish and Andy, ABC radio presenter and Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly, and Saw movie franchise writer Leigh Whannell.

But most shows on community television in Australia are made not by the young, but by enthusiasts keen to make something for their community. Henry Greener, the host of Channel 31’s long-running Jewish community show The Shtick, says in his experience in community television, while a “good experience for the kids”, is “more of a voice for the community to express themselves, and also to show to other communities whats going on”.

“This is so grassroots, and far more real than ‘reality TV’,” he said. “I’m livid about the decision — I think it should be stopped.”

That the role of community TV is in giving voice to the diversity of Australian society is a point also made by McLelland. “It’s about providing the public a way to participate in the medium,” he said. “Don’t we argue this is publicly owned spectrum? So why are we carving it up for more commercial interests?”

One outlet that is likely to remain open to grassroots community programming is community radio. As the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s general manager Jon Bisset told Crikey, Turnbull has been very supportive of community radio. “We expect community radio will have a very long and important future,” Bishop said.

“We’re very supportive of community television, and we’ll work with the Australian Community Television Alliance on this particular issue. Our view is that while there may be a future on the internet, there needs to be time for a transition.”

Unless a campaign to save community television gains traction in Canberra, community TV stations have 15 months left on air.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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