Australia

After 25 years, Australia's Community Television is set to go off-air

Indian international student Tavleen Singh is one of the voices of Community Television. Source: SBS

Channel 31 has been a breeding ground for diverse voices and now-famous faces, but it is set to close on 30 June.

Tavleen Singh was shocked when she was asked to host an Australian TV show. 

“One of the reasons it was surprising was because I am Indian, not Australian,” she tells SBS News. 

“I’m not a white person and I didn’t think that they would like to represent someone of colour on TV.”

The university student is a volunteer journalist for The Struggle, a youth-oriented news show broadcast on free-to-air channel 31, Melbourne’s Community Television station.

But Community Television will be shut down in Australia on 30 June.

Tavleen Singh operates a camera
Tavleen Singh operates a camera at the C31 studios in Melbourne.
SBS

"Community stories are something that are often lost in the more glaring noise that commercial or major networks pick up,” Ms Singh says. 

“And Community TV presents that very needed platform for voices that are often drawn out.”

Community Television stations were established across Australia during the early 1990s, founded on the principle of ‘open access’ for anyone in the community to make content to put on the air.

“There are very few people in the television industry that haven't touched community television on their way through to having a career in this field,” says Shane Dunlop, the general manager of Melbourne station C31.

Community TV has helped well-known entertainers including Hamish Blake, Andy Lee and Rove McManus break into the industry.

The sector has also promoted diverse voices on programs such as Salam Cafe, the Islamic comedy show that launched the media careers of Waleed Aly, Susan Carland and Nazeem Hussein.

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For Dorcas Maphakela, the creator of lifestyle program OzAfricanTV, Community TV has represented an opportunity for Australia’s African diaspora to “own our narrative”.

“There's a lot of negativity around and I feel like people of African descent are not celebrated enough,” she says.

“So we choose to tell stories that stem from a positive perspective so we show a new perspective about the African people of Australia.”

Dorcas Maphakela in the C31 studio
Dorcas Maphakela in the C31 studio.
SBS

During the COVID-19 pandemic, community TV stations have also helped religious organisations by transmitting their services direct to living rooms.

With mosques shuttered, The Victorian Board of Imams organised weekly sermons to be broadcast each Friday. The program has been so well-received, the Board of Imams is hoping to extend it beyond the pandemic.

“The chanting of glorifying God and the sermon came to the living rooms of many Muslim families live,” says Sheikh Muhammad Saleem.

“This particular program in the last nine weeks has reduced this feeling of absence or feeling of not going to the mosque to some extent, especially for the families.”

Looming switch-off

In 2014, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Community TV stations their access to the broadcast spectrum would be revoked, forcing the sector to move online.

The initial switch-off date was slated for the end of 2015, but stations received a series of small extensions with the deadline now set for June 30 this year.

“It has been government policy to transition community television to an online model since 2014, and the community television sector has been well aware of the government’s policy since that time,” a spokesperson for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told SBS News.

Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher has not announced a further extension for Community Television licenses.
AAP

“Community TV can continue to support the creation, production and distribution of Australian content online and provide opportunities for the next generation of screen talent in front and behind the camera and reach a larger audience online.”

“Government recognised the shift to digital creatives years ago and through Screen Australia it has funded talent development online for more than 200 projects, primarily for YouTube, and the top 30 alone have had more than 375 million views.”

Government funding was provided to assist the sector to transition to a new streaming model, but that hasn’t stopped two of the five community TV stations from shutting up shop since the original announcement was made.

Mr Dunlop does accept audiences are moving away from television screens to the internet but says the station simply won’t be able to survive the transition financially.

“Community television is self-reliant and has been for its 25-year history,” he says. 

“We support ourselves through station sponsorship, from small to medium-sized businesses.”

“Our businesses suffered immensely. We estimate that we've lost in the vicinity of $4 million in revenue over the six years as a result of the impacts of the government's decision.”

Mr Dunlop also argues the opportunities, training and production values the station provides for creatives just can’t be replicated online.

"We have functioning TV studios that replicate what you will find at mainstream networks, and outside of community television, there is no other opportunity to get that experience."

Volunteer and program maker Ms Singh says: “Getting across the different fields that are involved in filming, editing, production ... I don't think I would have had that opportunity if not for Community TV.” 

“It's a very realistic atmosphere and an experience that we don't usually get as journalism or media students.”

Over the past few months, C31 and it’s sister station C44 in Adelaide have ramped up their campaign to have their licenses extended.

They’ve received support from members of both sides of politics, with a motion passed in the Australian Senate calling on Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to reverse his decision.

“The impact will be felt across multicultural communities who really rely on community television to reach their audiences,” Mr Dunlop says. 

“Yes, [online streaming] opens up that content to a wider audience globally, but it also cuts out a large portion of the communities that would normally tune into those programs on television.”

And the power of broadcasting is not missed by the station’s program makers.

“Although Australia markets itself as a multicultural society, we don't get to see that on our screens,” says program creator Ms Maphakela.

“Platforms like Channel 31, they're incredible because they allow us the space to come and tell our stories, the way we want to tell our stories.”

“These platforms are incredibly important. And I really hope they don't get switched off."

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