210413 Communitytvseeksfuture

Community TV seeks a future on our screens

A statement from our representative body the Australian Community Television Alliance (ACTA):

ACTA urges the Federal Government to include C31 Melbourne and C44 Adelaide in its proposed media reforms and not end free-to-air community TV in Australia.

The Australian Community Television Alliance (ACTA) is calling on the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, Minister for Communications, to include community television in its proposed re-stack of Australian TV spectrum and keep C31 Melbourne and C44 Adelaide on-air until their broadcast spectrum is repurposed.

C31 and C44 have been invited by the Federal Government to provide a submission to the current consultation on the Media Reform Green Paper, which closes on 23 May—just over a month before both stations’ broadcast licences expire on 30 June 2021. (Read the Green Paper here.)

“We have written to Minister Fletcher asking for an opportunity to discuss our broadcast licence deadline and our upcoming submission as part of the Green Paper process,” C31 General Manager Shane Dunlop said. “We believe May will be too late as one month is not enough time to undertake a thorough and proper review of our response. To switch us off before this consultation process is completed would deny the Australian public an outcome that works towards their overall best interests.”

“As stated in the Green Paper, the broadcast spectrum we currently occupy is not scheduled to be repurposed until 2024, possibly later. A digital re-stack is then slated to occur sometime around 2026. So turning us off now is completely unnecessary.”

“We would also strongly suggest that community TV deserves a place within the longer-term framework of free-to-air TV,” added C44 General Manager Lauren Hillman. “The Green Paper sees all free-to-air broadcasters converting to more efficient broadcast technology after the re-stack, which would allow for more channels using much less space. There is a pathway forward for community TV and we’re urging Minister Fletcher to consider it.”

Since 2014, the Federal Government has provided seven last-minute broadcast licence extensions, insisting that community TV stations transition to an online-only model. The uncertainty caused, and the difficulty of generating revenue from digital platforms, has ultimately led to the closure of community TV stations in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

When pressed about the future of Australia’s two remaining community TV stations on the eve of their last extension deadline on QandA on 29 June last year, Minister Fletcher announced—just 26 hours before switch-off—that C31 and C44 would be granted a 12-month extension.

The Minister insisted that an online model is best for community TV and that C31 and C44 should continue “as a great place for people to work, make programs [and] be responsive to the community.” The Minister also assured viewers that the Federal Government would work with both stations to effect a successful transition.

C31 and C44 have repeatedly asserted to the Federal Government that broadcast revenues are critical to both stations’ viability. Both stations are committed to a digital future and have made considerable efforts to evolve their services and develop new revenue from video and livestream production. However, to replace broadcast revenue and achieve a successful transition to an online-only model by June 2021 is not possible. Furthermore, ending free-to-air community TV is contrary to the aims of the Green Paper.

ACTA contends that free-to-air community TV should continue for the same reasons the Green Paper (on p.3) argues that the Federal Government’s proposed reforms are necessary to protect commercial broadcasters: because ‘older Australians, the less affluent … are less likely to use alternatives to free-to-air television …’; to keep ‘Australian stories available on our television screens’; and because, without community TV, ‘the volume, variety and quality of Australian content available is likely to decline; audiences will have access to few Australian voices and stories.’

In May, a new ACTA video-on-demand streaming platform and app will be launched to make community TV even more accessible.

“As a sector, we have always embraced new broadcast technologies and we look forward to the release of our upcoming VOD platform,” Ms Hillman said. “However, the challenge of transitioning community TV viewers and replacing the substantial revenue that free-to-air television still generates in the time frame the Government has outlined just isn’t feasible. Particularly as we come out of a devastating pandemic.”

“We look forward to hearing from the Minister soon,” Ms Hillman added.

C31 Melbourne and C44 Adelaide will be holding the tenth Antenna Awards on 29 May to recognise the best of community television. Both stations look forward to celebrating not only the incredible, diverse local and emerging talent on display, but the successful release of their VOD platform and a renewal of their broadcast licences beyond 30 June this year.