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TV & Radio

Sep 11, 2014

Turnbull sends community television to the gallows, leaves sector fuming

Thanks to Malcolm Turnbull's surprise announcement yesterday, community TV stations have 15 months left on air.

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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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20 comments

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20 thoughts on “Turnbull sends community television to the gallows, leaves sector fuming

  1. paddy

    While there’s a sizable list of Turnbull’s “achievements” that I find deeply offensive, for sheer, vicious bastardry, this one is only topped by his gutting of the NBN.
    I’m almost impressed (in a very sick way) that he can actually keep a straight face, while suggesting the Community TV should use the Internet as an alternative mode of transmission.

    I really hope this Govt only manages the one term.
    Because the amount of damage they’ve managed to inflict so far, is downright scary.

  2. Mali Edon

    >If it’s such a great broadcast medium, then why aren’t Seven, Nine and Ten making significant moves to shift their business online?”

    The simple answer is that once out of the center of the capital cities there are many areas where the internet is not fast enough (if it exists) to support streaming for one viewer let alone a household of users

  3. tumblingdice

    The pointless cruelty of this decision left me absolutely staggered yesterday. I think it’s become obvious that the Liberals will sell anything, at any time, as long as it turns a profit for them and their corporate friends – but to destroy something that does a lot of genuine good for a lot of people, gives a voice to people who will never, ever be acknowledged by mainstream, commercial broadcasting, and acts as a training ground for future cultural contributors – it absolutely beggars belief. Community programs about gardening, or baking, or fishing, or helping people in need, or gay culture, or underground music – all sacrificed at the altar of neoliberal greed.

    Turnbull is no moderate, he is not ‘one of the good ones’, and he is not a ‘friend’ to anyone other than his corporate cronies. The Liberals are wreckers of everything they can – and nothing else.

    I hope that Australia rallies around and fights this. It’s not theirs to destroy. It cannot be that the Liberals can destroy anything they see fit at any given time. It just cannot be.

  4. tinman_au

    “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”

    Hmm…I can’t think of why the Liberals would be gunning for them…

  5. Brian Williams

    Too true Paddy – an utter act of bastardry from a man I was once dumb enough to believe would make a good and fair Prime Minister. What the hell was I thinking?

    And why does the spectrum need to be freed up, anyway? No-one is seriously looking to start a new FTA commercial channel, and Ten is burning so much cash it might be out of business in 2 years.

    The only hope on the horizon is that a groundswell of public support is created over the next 15 months, and that all other parties promise to restore the channels after the 2016 election. Methinks that Turnbull has seriously underestimated just how loved these stations are in some communities.

  6. archibald

    I love the idea that this channel would be used by the current networks. Prior to “self-regulation” FTA broadcasters were limited to 14 mins per hour of commercials. Now, these networks are dividing their chunk of spectrum into multiple channels some of which run ads 24/7 and other which run adverts continuously all night. How the precious resource of this bandwidth can be handed over for this sort of useless guff is beyond me. Looking at this situation, Turnbull should be taking away “their” bandwidth if they aren’t using it for anything that benefits the community, not giving them more.

  7. Graeski

    What actually happened was that someone in Malcolm’s office made a typo in a report to him and referred to it as “communist television”.

    It was all downhill from there.

  8. Luke Hellboy

    Oh the irony of gutting the NBN and then telling community stations to go produce content online. What’s next, inflicting vicious anti-asylum seeker immigration policies while increasing 457 visas for low or unskilled work? That’s right, they do that too. Seems ironic policy is par for course. Being able to appreciate the black humor in this govts policies is the only benefit they have (for the bottom 95% of us anyway).

  9. sparky

    And slowly the voices are silenced.

  10. ralph

    Turnbull is dreaming if he thinks the broadcasters will manage the transition to MPEG4.They only completed the switchover to digital TV at the end of 2013 and much of the transmission infrastructure is relatively new.! The broadcasters are unlikely to have any immediate interest because it would involve a further capital outlay to upgrade transmission infrastructure, many of their viewers only have MPEG2 capable TVs and would be unable to access services without a MPEG4 set top box and the whole process would be disruptive as channels are swapped around and services possibly simulcast.

  11. zut alors

    The Minister for Non Communication is doing a sterling job of whittling down the electorate’s options. He’s fast become the smiling assassin of connectivity.

    What has community TV ever done to Turnbull to deserve this?

  12. Bill Hilliger

    Ruperts man delivers the plan.

  13. Fair Suck of the Sav

    What a disgraceful decision. This government is so far out of touch with grass roots Australia it rates as the country’s most insular and ignorant for some time.

  14. beachcomber

    Turnbull needs Murdoch’s support to become PM. Killing off broadband and community TV help him.

  15. Scott

    Has anyone actually watched community television…the programming is absolutely far too niche for the mass market. Doesn’t deserve to have spectrum reserved for this sort of audiance…especially in a spectrum deficit world.

    Better for these programs to move to Youtube. Justin beiber got his big break on youtube…so can the future roves/ hamish and Andy’s

  16. CML

    It should be obvious to all by now, that community TV does NOT follow the ‘correct’ line laid down by this government.
    How ’bout Foxtel? That should be fasci+t enough for this mob in Canberra!
    Even better, Murdoch owns half of it!! Payback time has arrived folks!!!

  17. AR

    Paddy – like many, I despaired on Sept 8th but consoled myself with the thought that the torys would self destruct before too much damage was done.
    How wrong I was and still 2 more years!

  18. Dogs breakfast

    “The freed spectrum will be used by the rest of the free-to-air networks — the commercial stations”

    Well clearly, because they are doing such a great job of it, pouring out quality program after quality program, nary an hour where a man can get some sleep due to the incessant and brilliant television.

    Worst government ever!

    Surely someone has made a T-Shirt with that slogan on it.
    I want to buy one.

  19. Stuart Coyle

    “Has anyone actually watched commercial television…the programming is absolutely far too niche for the mass market. Doesn’t deserve to have spectrum reserved for this sort of audiance…especially in a spectrum deficit world.”

    FTFY Scott.

  20. Orthello

    Lets just see who ends up with the extra spectrum if this goes ahead.. me thinks he`s under instructions.

  21. klewso

    One thing about Malcolm – he’ll never let you down.

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