Community television: alive and kicking

Tina Kaufman

It might not be in the TV guides, and it might be hard to find on your TV, but community television is alive and suddenly much more healthy. After 8 years on temporary licences, broadcasting on a shoestring in centres around Australia, it has gained some security with new federal legislation allowing permanent licences, rewarding the commitment of volunteers and community groups all around Australia.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Act (No 2) 2002 was developed after extensive consultation with the community television sector and the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (the umbrella body for all community radio and television). It will provide a new licensing framework, increase sponsorship levels and improve the corporate governance and accountability requirements of CTV licensees. The current spectrum will be available for CTV until the end of 2006 after which CTV broadcasting will go digital. The Australian Broadcasting Authority will allocate permanent licenses next year, at last giving CTV, says Communications Minister Richard Alston, “a certain and viable future.”

A hard road

CTV has been broadcasting, on a trial basis for 8 years, but its history goes back to the establishment of video access centres by the Whitlam government, which inspired the idea of community access television. Over the following 20 years the possibilities of cable, satellite and subscription television were explored, including some form of community access to the proposed models. When Pay TV finally arrived Optus re-broadcast Channel 31 in Melbourne and the Gold Coast until 2001. Channel 31 is now the only free-to-air channel not re-broadcast on Pay-TV. But Foxtel has plans to include a community channel once digital is introduced in 2006.

Currently CTV stations broadcast in every mainland capital, on UHV Channel 31 and in Lismore on Channel 68. It’s been a long hard road since the 1992 Broadcasting Services Act recognised community television. Community-based broadcasters delivering community, cultural and educational services through non-profit organisations, are considered the essential base from which to service disadvantaged and marginalised communities. However, in 1994, CTV applicants were allotted temporary narrowcasting licences to be renewed each year and Channel 31 was assigned for community use in the mainland capitals, Hobart, Bendigo, Lismore and Fremantle.

The centres have had a chequered history: both Sydney and Melbourne operations experienced financial difficulties (although both are now in good shape), Hobart relinquished its licence due to lack of funds, Bendigo lost its licence because it never got to air, and the Fremantle organisation dissolved. Adelaide’s ACE TV is under investigation by the ABA (for not having enough community access, or delivering a proper community service), but there are active and committed local groups waiting in the wings. Briz 31 in Brisbane and Access 31 in Perth are doing well, and Link TV in Lismore is back on air after a patchy history. Link has an active community that includes many film and videomakers in northern NSW and University of New England media students.

The government, which doesn’t provide any funding, has finally recognised that it costs 10 times as much to run TV as radio (it’s estimated to be at least $500,000 per year). Acknowledging the importance to CTV of sponsorship it will allow the broadcast of 7 minutes of sponsorship time in an hour, an increase on the previous 5 minutes. Sale of airtime is allowed, but there must be a balance between the revenue-raising requirements of the CTV sector and its community commitments. For instance Renaissance TV broadcasts on CTV in Sydney and Melbourne between 8am and 4pm daily. “This was a dead time for us”, Melbourne C31 Chair Ralph Mclean explains. “For those followers of Fishcam, it’s now shown from midnight to 8am, accompanied by independent Australian music.” Renaissance TV broadcasts specifically to older viewers, with programming made up of its own productions on such subjects as how to manage your finances and the bowls program, Jack and the Green Talk, as well as old black and white movies and TV material no-one else wants to re-broadcast. When the federal government sold its transmitters to commercial operators and the rents went up enormously, Renaissance loaned the CTV channels the money to cover the increases and to upgrade their transmitters, improving both quality and coverage. People could suddenly find Channel 31 on their TV, and viewer numbers have been improving substantially.

From Tiger TV to Songlines

Programs on CTV channels are quite eclectic, dependent on the programming groups and what they contribute. They range from arts-related programs to educational and training work, from short films and documentaries from local film and videomakers, student productions, contributions from many ethnic groups, to much more idiosyncratic fare from special interest groups. In Perth the range is from Flicktease, a movie news and reviews show, to a program that helps people who are doing up old cars. Melbourne has Tiger TV, a football show put together by the fans of the Richmond Football Club, Public Hangings, an art show in which the presenters go out into the streets looking for artists, and if they find any, take the camera into their studios to display their work on air. There’s the Koori music show, Songlines, a talent show, Jaanz Live, and Dawn’s Crack, a program of arts-related news and views put together by RMIT students—it recently won the Tony Staley Award for community access. “Because of the increasingly nationalised commercial networks”, explains Jan Macarthur, Policy Officer at the CBAA, “there’s much more of a role for Channel 31 in each centre to provide local news and interview programs, and they do.”

Access 31 in Perth commenced broadcasting in 1999. They were fortunate in that they could learn from the other channels, and set up a model that incorporated educational as well as community commitments. WA TAFE broadcasts its educational and training programs and student productions. They have a lot of volunteers from students to mature age helpers, and the state government has been supportive, providing some indirect funding through the broadcast of government announcements. Access 31 Station Manager Andrew Brine says, “In our business plan we have 2 areas of revenue: sponsorship from small and medium-sized businesses, and the sale of airtime to organisations who want permanent spots. We sell 20% of airtime to subsidise the 80% we give away to local community groups—and that works. And we program more than 20 hours a week of truly local content—that’s more than all the other free-to-air channels in Perth put together—and that’s what community TV is all about.”

Getting a licence

The Australian Broadcasting Authority plans to call for applications for permanent licences early next year, probably in February, and will provide a generous application period, probably conducting the process across Australia at one time. If there is more than one applicant for any licence, it will be granted on merit, either on the submission papers or in a hearing. When there is only one applicant, the ABA will have to be satisfied that the application meets all requirements of community access and corporate governance (applicants must be not-for-profit companies limited by guarantee and provide annual reports). The current 12-month temporary licences will be extended for a further 12 months in January, and the ABA hopes the application process will be completed by the end of the year, with the permanent licences in place for 2004.

Melbourne’s C31 Chair, Ralph Mclean, is a relatively recent convert to community television, and he says that working to put it into a healthy state is the hardest work he’s done in his life. “It’s even harder than the arts sector for complications and expense. You combine ego, creativity and finance, and it’s not easy—but this makes it worthwhile!”

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 17

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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