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Clock ticking on permanent Channel 44 switch-off

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The Federal Government is preparing to switch off Channel 44 Adelaide for good on June 30 – despite a last-ditch attempt by the Senate to save Australia’s last remaining community television stations.

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The Senate yesterday called on the Federal Government to extend the licence of C44 Adelaide and C31 Melbourne, and acknowledge the value of local community television services.

The motion passed unopposed by the Government.

The stations have been on life-support since since then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull decided in 2104 to move community broadcasting onto an online-only delivery model.

The sector has since received six short-term license renewals – the instability of which had led to the closure of community stations in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth – leaving only the Adelaide and Melbourne stations.

The latest renewal expires on June 30.

In April, C44 Adelaide acting general manager Kristen Hamill told InDaily that an online-only model was not sustainable, and without a further broadcast license renewal of up to five years the stations would “almost certainly go into insolvency”.

But a spokesperson for Communications and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher today told InDaily that stations had “long been aware” that the online model was government policy.

“Community broadcasters have received Government support of $90,000 each to assist them to transition their services online,” the spokesperson said.

“They can continue to support the creation, production and distribution of Australian content and provide opportunities for the next generation of 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.”

The spokesperson also told InDaily that “on an average prime time basis, community TV audiences are very small”.

“In 2019, the combined average audience for community stations operating in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne was 3000 people on any given night between 6pm and midnight,” the spokesperson said.

“This compares with an average audience of 529,000 on Nine, 503,000 on Seven, 309,000 on ABC1, 298,000 on TEN and 131,000 on SBS ONE.”

In a statement, South Australian Senator Marielle Smith – joined by fellow Labor senators and MPs – requested Fletcher “do the right thing and exercise his discretion to extend the licences”.

“The Minister says the Government wants to put the spectrum to alternative use – he didn’t name one, and even confirmed the radio frequency spectrum in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth is currently going to waste,” the statement said.

Smith said comparing community television to the country’s largest broadcasters was “a ridiculous sentiment to convey”.

“They provide a completely different type of content and really important social content in our community – and this is about valuing the kinds of content they produce and the special role they have in local communities, opposed to being a national broadcaster,” she said.

She said the Minister also “completely ignores issues of a digital divide in Australia” and that older Australians, those living in regional areas and those in low income brackets in particular did not have the same access to technology as the rest of the population.

She told InDaily C44 Adelaide was a “huge asset” for South Australia.

“It is something which we cannot afford to see let go,” Smith said.

“During Covid-19 more and more South Australians have tuned into Channel 44 … we’ve seen 57,000 new viewers come to Channel 44 and part of that is about a sense of wanting to reconnect with the community in ways that are no longer accessible to them.

“For instance, the streaming of religious services has become very important as people aren’t able to attend the religious services that they used to attend.

“But community TV more broadly is about sharing our community stories, and stories which don’t always make it on to TV and that is really important for us and for people who don’t have access to new forms of media or don’t have the same kind of digital connectivity that other Australians do.

“The idea that they can all move over to YouTube to access their content is just not true and ignores a very serious reality of a digital divide in Australia.”

Smith said community television was also an important stepping-stone for emerging local talent including as a training ground for young journalists, producers and artists.

“Some of Australia’s best-known stars got their start on community TV … Rove, Hamish and Andy, Nazeem Hassain and Waleed Aly, but also a lot of Australians who start working behind the scenes in production, so producers’ and other people behind the cameras and lighting, these are all important jobs,” Smith said.

“If we turn off community TV, do we also turn off the careers of hundreds of Australians who haven’t yet got that start in commercial TV?”

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