Community TV: endangered species

Yianni ZinonosThere is fear that community television will be left behind in the switchover after the government failed to include financial assistance for them in the recent budget announcement. Elika Bahramrad reports.

The digital revolution is redefining the world of cinema and television, providing viewers with a whole new experience of better sound and picture quality, as well as more channels to choose from. However, community TV in Australia has been on the trot since the 1980s. With stations operating in every capital city, holding a collective estimated viewership of four million nationwide, the non-profit organisations rely on sponsorship and self-funded volunteers to cover production expenses.

The planned 2013 switchover is causing major problems for these stations, as the majority are only currently able to broadcast programs through an analogue transmitter, and are experiencing a decline in audience growth. This as a result, decreases sponsorship revenue, which ultimately plays a vital role for community TV to keep going on.

Strict guidelines regarding sponsorship announcements, outlined in the Community Television Code of Practice, already place a limitation to financial revenue. The concept of sponsorship in community television takes on a similar notion to that of advertising, providing organisations with airtime for business promotion. In the case of community television, up to seven minutes of announcements can be broadcast per hour, and the sponsor is required to acknowledge the financial support of the sponsor for the station.


TVS Sydney chief executive and Australian Community Television Alliance (ACTA) secretary Laurie Patton said $3 million a year is all the money the umbrella organisation needs from the government to cover expenses for a digital transmitter for all five capital city community TV stations, which would be divided into five $600,000 grants, to simulcast in both analogue and digital formats until the full digital transition is made in 2013. Patton defines the current situation as being “marooned in analogue” and believes a “hot swap” to digital without a simulcast period would alienate their current viewers.

In addition to the problems the national community television sector harbours as a whole, some states also face their own specific obstacles.

Working within a smaller market, community TV in Adelaide has smaller production groups making programs, resulting in fewer sponsorship opportunities. The city seems to be doing it the toughest. With a proper analogue transmitter only switched on by South Australian Premier Mike Rann on June 10 to replace what Channel 31 station manager Brian Dutton calls its former ‘toy transmitter’, it’s copped a hard impact in terms of accessibility to the Adelaide audience.

“It’s a balancing act. [With the new transmitter] we’re getting viewers on one hand, and losing them on the other, with people switching to digital. Dwindling audiences equal dwindling sponsors, and eventually equals problems,” admitted Dutton.

Adelaide’s digital market reached 47 percent of viewers in the last year, so Channel 31 can reach roughly 53 percent of the audience only. If they were to go digital, their potential audience would more than double.

“It’s a worry in all states. You cant’ tell me that we’re not worthy of consideration; with four million people watching community TV, I can’t believe the government can’t find a few bucks to change us over to digital,” said Dutton.

In Melbourne, the problem is not necessarily financial; their current priority is getting access to a channel to broadcast on. Channel 31’s project manager Campbell Manderson says they’re not asking for funding, because they’re certain they could get their 1.5 million viewers to donate a dollar each.

“That would sort us out. If the Government came out tomorrow and said ‘you can broadcast through channel 38’, we would put in an order for a digital transmitter immediately. We could start fundraising; it would be tax-deductible for people and would give them a new channel on their set top box,” explained Manderson.

Manderson believes 31 owes its success to the strong community groups and the fact that they are the ‘opposite end on the spectrum’ of TV, broadcasting predominately Australian-based content.

“We are accessible to so many community groups, and many of these groups have many members. We broadcast more Australian content than any other television station in the country, while if you look at the night-time viewing on commercial stations, you’d be hard-pressed to find Australian content”.

In Brisbane, Queensland Community TV (QCTV) chief executive Paul Mills acknowledged the lack of marketing budget and access to digital spectrum as main issues. “Community TV has since its conception faced problems with funding to reach the standards that are expected by viewers when comparing it with national television”.


Mills also stressed the nationwide lack of recognition of community TV as a contributor to the problems the sector has now. Community TV needs to be recognised as a positive contributor to the overall TV landscape, and be visibly supported by community, state, and federal bodies alike.

Before Mills came to QCTV, he ran a community station in New Zealand, but was forced to close it down due to what he says was the government’s “lack of inclusion in the digital switch over and the insufficient funds needed to become a national channel”, and thus was deemed a low priority and too expensive.

“Coming from that, it is sad to see that a similar mistake has been made by both countries in recognising the importance of community TV and what it offers in diversity to the landscape,” he said.

People wanting work experience within the media industry make up the majority of volunteers working for community TV stations, which provide them with invaluable experience, helping them to develop skills in television production and presenting for future career avenues. Such successful examples include commercial TV personalities Rove McManus, Hamish and Andy, and Corinne Grant, who were discovered on community TV in Melbourne.

“I have lost count of the number of people who have gone on to be employed by the Seven Network,” Manderson said.

“Former staff members who are working for other broadcasters are actually writing to politicians saying this is the organisation that actually gave me the skills. We are the training ground for Australian television. People are reluctant to hire people who don’t have any experience and that’s fair enough. Community television is where people can get that experience.”


Independent program producer and host of TVS Sydney’s Yianni’s City Life, Yianni Zinonos believes that community TV has been pushed into the background and is not getting the credibility it deserves.

“There’s a huge value there and it creates an enormous amount of goodwill in the community,” said Zinonos, whose show has been on the air since 2004, with an average of 50,000 viewers in Sydney and a cost of “couple of hundreds of dollars” per episode. “We’re all doing this out of our own pocket and love and passion. It’s been around for a long time so they can’t pull the plug on us. It’s not fair”.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told Encore that the government is aware of the need for community television to make the transition to digital broadcasting quickly and is examining a range of options to provide community television stations with an appropriate solution.

“Despite the difficult economic circumstances in which this year’s federal budget was handed down, and the limited broadcasting spectrum available ahead of the switch off of analogue broadcasting, the Rudd Government remains committed to identifying a digital home for community TV”, he said.

But Manderson isn’t content with the approach. “We honestly believed that he had a plan and that there was funding attached in this year’s budget, and he’s really come up with nothing” he said.

“We aren’t asking for anything other than equality”


Local communities across the nation have been relentlessly lobbying, placing pressure on the government to live up to its word. Joy Hruby, 82 year-old host of TVS’ Joy’s World, has produced a video asking for support for the inclusion of community TV on digital television. Filmed at locations ranging from a centre for seniors to her local church, it consists of viewers speaking about the plight to save community TV. Hruby and a volunteer editor working for TVS stayed up all night to edit the video, which was broadcast in late July and sent to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

With an extensive background in Australian television, Hruby has been working in the industry for over 50 years. Joy’s Worldon Channel 31 Sydney holds the title as the longest running show on Australian Community TV.

Awarded with an Order of Australia Medal in 2007, in recognition of her contribution to the arts and entertainment industry, Hruby is among the few who truly hold community television to their hearts. “It would be awful if we got lost in this maze. Community TV is so very important; it gives people a chance to do things they normally wouldn’t be able to do. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have,” she said. ■


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