Waleed Aly is one of many stars who got their start on Channel 31 (Image: supplied)

Good God, it’s that time of the year again when we have to defend the continued existence of Channel 31.

It comes around so fast, doesn’t it? It seems only a few months ago we were all gathered around the ceremonial “rabbit ears” aerials exchanging themed presents, reading of the Green Guide Channel 31 listing (with ceremonial magnifying glasses), and dressed as our favourite Channel 31 characters (last year I counted eight Waleed Alys, seven Darrens, four Broses, three dressed as a death metal guitar solo from whatever that show’s called, 29 Andy Lees and two Hamishes — one of whom was possibly Hamish).

Channel 31, the Melbourne community TV channel, has been threatened with closure at least twice, and saved twice, and it would appear to be perpetually threatened. The first attempt to kill it, around about its 20th anniversary, was at the hands of Malcolm Turnbull, then communications minister, who celebrated its imminent closure with his usual neophiliac nonsense about the agility of going online etc.

The rationale at the time was that everything on the spectrum that wasn’t ABC or SBS should be available to the highest bidder, even though the commercial channels couldn’t use the extra “digital” channels (actually digitally compressed analogue) they had. They still can’t. They change the names of their extra channels every few years or so — Ten Peach, Nine Blather, Seven Colostomy, etc, etc — and they’re still mainly just endless repeats of the vast archive of network TV.

One’s affection for the ongoing surrealist collage that is 9Gem cannot disguise the fact that the extended spectrum has no real audience that can justify the commercial networks’ hold on it. They could be forced by a government to invest in significant new and low-budget programming in exchange for these digital rights, but no government will ever stand up to Free TV. And Free TV’s mode of thought is utterly totalitarian — it wants no challenge to its dominance whatsoever.

Now, however, commercial broadcast TV is dying so fast that not even the mooks who run Free TV can justify claiming what remains of the spectrum. So the latest reason to close down Channel 31 is to prepare the airwaves for expanded broadband. When? In three years. Until then it would be white noise. It’s something like that that clues you into the other force that wants to kill Channel 31 and everything like it: the public service, which wants nothing that is outside its control.

Nothing else can explain the absolutely maniacal desire to kill Channel 31. When you read the histories of utterly pointless, self-perpetuating power groupings — the Housing Commission of Victoria, all roads authorities everywhere, some of the writers programs associated with the Wheeler Centre — the plot to kill Channel 31 is right up there with them.

We’ve stated the broad and narrowcast arguments before, but let’s do it again.

It is an inherent good for any society to have plural modes of discourse and exchange, public, private, community, and other combos. The spectrum is a scarce public resource — we have a right to have a slice of it for no-cost entry media. Different modes of producing discourse encourage different ways of thinking and give space for voices that institutional processes would exclude.

Here’s the kicker: Channel 31 gets no real government funding. It’s genuinely free and volunteer-driven. Having a fully pluralist society means having a space for the wacky, the odd, the obscure, the amateurish and the just plain appalling.

Now the narrowcast argument. The goddamn channel is actually a resource for public and commercial TV because it acts as a free contribution to talent development and behind-the-camera training. It has done this for literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who have gone on to work in the media. Quite aside from the famous faces mentioned above have been the people who have learnt to produce TV shows.

This is the most head-slappingly stupid aspect of it all. The training that Channel 31 has provided — to be then used by commercial and public channels — would run into the several tens of millions of dollars that they would otherwise have to spend. They once did. The commercial channels and production companies used to hire en masse people who weren’t much use for the first six months or a year of their training. They don’t need to now, because people come from C31 knowing how to work a camera, run sound, floor manage, etc. There’s nothing like broadcast television. It has to be learnt as a specific trade. A place where people who really want to do television go, and do it for free, is a no-cost community resource.

If the commercial channels had any intelligence whatsoever they’d keep a watching brief on C31. There are dozens of shows and performers beyond those who made it that could have been developed from there to commercial. But they are, for the most part, venal and stupid people. There would seem to be a lot of it about.

Broadcast TV may be dying, but it ain’t dead yet. There should be a permanent place for community TV on it. Get the commercial channels to hand back one of their ridiculous repeat channels –10 Gnu, 9 Smeghead, 7 Gauleiter, which rate a solid 1% — if we need spectrum.

Yes there will be a time to turn off Channel 31 — when broadcasting itself is switched off, and not before. Now let’s all sing the Get Cereal breakfast show theme song…

Do you watch — or at least appreciate — Channel 31? Let us know by writing to [email protected], and don’t forget to include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

Join us and save up to 50%

Subscribe before June 30 and choose what you pay for a year of Crikey. Save up to 50% or, chip in extra and get one of our limited edition Crikey merch packs.

Join Now