The Turnbull government is approaching its heat death. Only the essential mediocrity of Shorten Labor could save it. As it searches for new wedges to bang in, new divisions to focus on, it is coming up with stuff that is incomprehensible on the face of it, but rational as a desperate political calculus. The proposed English test for citizenship is one such, applying a standard of English comprehension and expression that much of the Parliament, and all of the National Party, would fail. The policy is not policy at all; it’s designed as something that Labor couldn’t accept, even if it wanted to, a desperate bit of political triage — so incomprehensible in terms of good migration and citizenship policy, obvious politics.

But there are some things this government is doing that are incomprehensibly incomprehensible, and the closure of community television is one of them. In a few weeks, Channel 31, this brilliant, great, mad, bad enterprise of two decades is going to disappear from the “flick-on” TV spectrum, and the country, and the media industry itself, is going to be the poorer for it. The decision was announced in those dim dark days, when Malcolm Turnbull was merely the minister for communications, and it was wreathed in typical Turnbullian bullshit. Community TV would migrate to digital online, and this would be a “liberation” for it, etc, etc.

The bullshit is obvious in this case, because if flick-on TV genuinely were a technology of the past, community TV would be left there undisturbed. It’s being chucked off because it occupies a valuable part of the high-frequency spectrum, the “sixth sector” of it, into which several digital-compressed channels can now be crowded. Who wants this sixth of a dying technology? Just about everyone who doesn’t have a non-pay TV channel yet, as well as the existing broadcasters. They have all been clamouring for it, threatening the major parties about it for years. Now they are getting it. Even better, they are getting a relaxation of the content provisions of broadcasting licences at the same time. Essentially, they will be able to pump any old shit through the 30 or so key digital-compressed channels, including daytime long-form advertorial, home-shopping, etc, etc. So they can plonk themselves down on this real estate, Channel 31 must go.

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This is not only a loss to the nation as a whole, it’s another example of the self-defeating stupidity of commercial Australian broadcasting. It’s a loss to the nation, because, while flick-on broadcasting may be on the way out, it’s not gone yet, and will be around for decades to come. For millions of Australians, flick-on TV is still the digital public square. For anyone over 45, flicking on the TV is still a “natural” mode of relaxing, and that’s especially so for people outside the knowledge class. Since the advent of the remote-control, “flicking-through” and “stumbling-upon” has been a dominant mode of experiencing TV, and so being part of that array has been a great place for a community TV station to be.

The plain fact is that if the broadcast spectrum is a public resource, then at least a sixth of it should be given over to community, non-state use. The proposition that the spectrum should be simply carved up and given to the highest bidder is the relic-mode, an implicit idea of a mass society in which there is no dynamic relation between broadcaster and audience, that everyone works down mill and comes home and watches Homicide. Far from being chased off the spectrum, community TV should be given the funding to run three channels in the slot. That’s not only for the good of the audience, it’s for the good of the community producer, and for creative Australia generally.

The plain fact is there’s no substitute for the potential and the challenge of producing TV for free-to-air broadcast, for an audience that is in the millions. There was a lot of Channel 31 that was hilariously duff — but there was a lot of it where people stepped up, and made better programs than they otherwise would have made, because of the sudden realisation that this was going out to, potentially, everybody. Yes, the audiences were often small, the reach was probably well below 100%.

[Media execs gather in Canberra for a government love-in]

Quite aside from the inherent community good and right to have a non-commercial channel, Channel 31 could have been more of an asset to commercial broadcasters, if they had had the basic wit to use it as a potential talent pool. Channel 31 was, after all, full of people who were willing to hone their own comedic and presenting talents for no money down — indeed were willing to work for years at it. Had the commercial broadcasters paid more attention it, they could have harvested dozens of presenters and concepts that were halfway to being broadcast-ready.

Nothing makes clear the uncompetitive-oligopolistic nature of commercial broadcasting than that they couldn’t be arsed, even when they were gasping for talent and new ideas. The key find from Channel 31 is usually taken to be Hamish and Andy, who were part of show called Radio Karate — which this correspondent saw one evening, while working with a group of writer-producers at Channel Seven. When we showed the show to Seven’s executives — who had spent months running around in headless panic because the network was tanking — they acted like we had unveiled some magic portal to a new reality, simply because we had switched on to 31. And really, for them, we had.

The truth of capitalism is that it always draws much of its value and accumulation from outside of the market itself. That is especially the case with the cultural market, which relies on the inherent human desire to perform, tell stories, transform reality through art. In the mass-cultural era, commercial channels spent a lot of money developing product, because they made a lot of money. As we have moved into a knowledge-culture dominated economy, they have been given a society in which huge numbers of people will develop their own talents for free. At the same time, as alternative sources of presentation have developed, the commercial big-beasts have been hit with an accumulation crisis. They can’t make big profits from what they do, so they now call on the state to help them: give them all the spectrum, relax local content rules, relax content rules altogether. Ideally, they’d like to broadcast home-shopping and the footy. They’re dying, and they want to take us all down with them.

Governments that genuinely valued innovation, experiment and creativity would not only guarantee a place for something like Channel 31, they would extend its remit. Commercial broadcasters that were run with a modicum of intelligence would cross-subsidise them. Instead, we have a government run with the same mediocrity as commercial TV is run, a perfect fit. Well, by the time this mob get thrown out — if this mob do get thrown out — I presume community TV will be gone from the spectrum. More room for ads for the Shark Rotator and the Abtastic 3000. What brilliant stewardship of our public resources and our public culture.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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