Community rallies as Channel 31 secures three-year extension
By Matt Harvey
City of Melbourne councillors voted unanimously to ask Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to extend Community Television’s licence, but this time for three years.
Melbourne’s Channel 31 was facing the threat of cancellation for the sixth time since 2014 and the possibility of once more being shut off forever by June 30.
But due to the hard work of viewers, practitioners, and an urgent motion put forward by City of Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nick Reece at a council meeting last month, a home for Community TV was secured until 2024 only seven days until the shut-off date.
The final push to securing a renewed licence came from the political advocacy of Rebekha Sharkie MP, Senator Marielle Smith and Senator Rex Patrick, allowing an amendment to broadcasting legislation to be passed in the Federal Senate and House of Representatives.
“It is with great pride and considerable relief that we announce today’s news. A licence renewal of three years will finally provide community TV stations with the stability we have gone without for almost a decade. Three more years will allow us to continue our long tradition of providing an accessible, vibrant, and important service to Melbourne’s diverse communities,” Mr Dunlop said.
Since the initial announcement in 2014 Australia has lost community TV stations; West TV in Perth, Television Sydney, and 31 digital, leaving only two channels remaining – Melbourne’s Channel 31 and Adelaide’s Channel 44.
The initial announcement was made by then Minister for Communication Malcolm Turnbull who said the future for community television was online.
“The Government believes that the best outcome for community television is that, in the future, it uses the internet as its distribution platform,” Mr Turnbull said.
What is happening?
In 2021 the Media Reform Green Paper was put forward by the current Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher who proposed a number of changes to the digital spectrum.
Spectrum relates to the radio frequencies allocated to the mobile industry and other sectors for communication over the airwaves.
The previous removal of analogue signal from the spectrum meant we could sell the space to the highest bidder.
The auction resulted in the bidders, Optus Mobile, Telstra and TPG Internet securing the reallocated spectrum for a total of $1.9 billion.
Proposed changes to spectrum would include new licences which meant channels used less spectrum, a restack of the channels, and that a considerable amount of spectrum will become available to be reallocated to other uses “most likely for mobile telecommunications” according to the Green Paper.
However, it was noticed by community TV managers Lauren Hillman, channel 44, and Shane Dunlop, channel 31, that there was specifically no mention of community television in the proposed restack.
“We are putting forward a submission around our thoughts because [the] current Green Paper does not include community television in [the] plan going forward. And we think that community TV is a vital part of the independent media landscape and we want to be included in this next technology restack,” Ms Hillman said.
Why should I care?
Australians born in non-English speaking countries are less likely to creatively participate in the arts (38 per cent) or attend arts events (63 per cent) compared to Australians overall (48 per cent and 71 per cent, respectively).
These numbers put particular emphasis on the importance of providing a space where Australians of a non-English speaking background, and other under-represented communities, can access the skills needed to engage in the arts in a meaningful way.
Such a program was Salam Caf – a light hearted, humorous view on life as a Muslim in Australia through panel discussion and a series of sketches that lampoon the representation of Muslims in Australia and the Islamic way of life which eventually got picked up by SBS.
In remote Australia, indigenous community media performs a vital service in not only maintaining social and cultural networks but also in providing critical information on health, community services and more.
“No matter which way you go it’s going to be difficult to ensure there is still local stories being made,” Mr Dunlop said.
During the COVID-19 outbreak when public gatherings were restricted and communities isolated, Channels 31 and 44 provided live broadcasts of community religious gatherings.
“During COVID community television became a vital, essential, service for many members of the community who couldn’t access the internet,” Ms Hillman said.
“We provided important Easter church services because they couldn’t go to church physically but we actually gave hours and hours of broadcast time to be able to broadcast those church services.”
Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece spoke at a recent City of Melbourne council meeting of the importance of community TV for local development.
“Channel 31 is a vital community outlet in Melbourne and Geelong,” Cr Reece said.
What would we lose?
Community TV not only provides a source for community access to marginalised groups, but it also provides valuable industry training for all levels of industry.
It is a well-known talking point that RMITV (student community television) would go on to
develop some of the biggest names in Australian entertainment, Rove McManus, Hamish and Andy, Nazeem Hussain, Waleed Aly, and Corrine Grant, while people like Shaun Micallef would form valuable connections from his time spent in community radio after being rejected from more standard approaches.
“I applied to the Australian Film and Television School as a post grad, and couldn’t get in, I wasn’t wanted anywhere,” Mr Micallef told Southbank News.
“The great thing about this business is it is so genuinely egalitarian you can come into it from any door, at any angle, at any age, and with any or no experience. I can’t think of another industry where the rewards are so great and you can come through this permeable membrane and you can come from anywhere to get inside it.”
And through these connections, he said he discovered some of his longest collaborators.
“It’s probably no surprise to you that some of the people I’ve worked most closely with are some of those I worked with when I was 18 on those community radio shows,” Mr Micallef said.
And while the famous successes of community TV are easy to point to the often overlooked element of importance of community TV is the training provided to all levels of industry from runners, camera operators right up to directors and producers.
“In any broadcasting week you will find there are about 1100 students and volunteers who work on its broadcast. And I know the partnership that exists between Channel 31 and RMIT and Deakin University is a great example of the media sector and the universities working together,” he said.
“It’s not just us at the station, it’s all of our many program makers, hundreds of volunteers,
and a history of providing an important pathway to industry,” Ms Hillman said.
“Community television is the link between university and industry.”
Jobs and growth
The dual intentions of the government, to create an economy backed by skilled jobs and training, and to take community TV away from broadcasting on TV, run in opposite directions.
The Media Reform Green Paper states: “Many Australians rely on free-to-air television. If a service was withdrawn because a broadcaster ceased to be financially viable, this would cause harm to consumers. Older Australians, the less affluent and those in regional and remote areas are less likely to use alternatives to free-to-air television, such as subscription television and SVOD services. They would be disproportionately affected by the withdrawal of a service.”
Local businesses benefit from the lower advertising rates with a prime-time 30 second spot, between 6pm and 12am, on Channel 31 running at $150 compared to Channel 7 which a prime-time spot will cost $11,700 saving businesses thousands in running costs.
Financially the Australian media sector is a significant segment of the domestic economy, employing around 90,000 Australians during 2018 and 2019, it generated an estimated $47.7 billion of domestic revenue through advertising and consumer spend in 2019.
The beginning of these financial windfalls come from the university and community sectors preparing performers, writers, and other industry professionals to learn the necessary skills to develop and evolve the media industry.
The Green Paper indicated that the broadcast spectrum that is currently occupied by Channel 31 is not scheduled to be repurposed until 2024 possibly later, up until 2026.
While the latest amendment does set a clear deadline for 2024 this will allow Channels 31 and 44 to work through the Media Reform Green Paper process and give the stations sufficient time to really plan their futures •