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Channel 44 wins last-minute lifeline instead of switch-off

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Adelaide’s Channel 44 community television station has been handed an eleventh-hour reprieve – only hours before the Federal Government was due to switch it off for good – but questions remain about its ability to survive and reach audiences online.

 

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C44, along with Melbourne community television station Channel 31, was due to be turned off at 11.59pm Monday, as part of a longstanding Coalition government push to force them online and sell off their broadcasting spectrum.

But last night, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced on the ABC’s Q&A program that the stations would not be switched off, but handed a further 12 month free-to-air TV licence renewal – their sixth since the Government announced the push to digital-only in 2014.

The instability of the process has since led to the closure of community stations in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth – leaving only the Adelaide and Melbourne channels.

Fletcher said the most recent extension had been granted on the condition the stations ceased broadcasting on July 1, 2021.

“The Government agreed to the extension following receipt of written undertakings from C31 and C44 that they will make the transition by 30 June 2021, and in C31’s case, with financial support secured from the Victorian Government,” Fletcher said.

“The final extension will allow a period for C31 and C44 to manage their day to day operations and take all the necessary steps to complete the transition.

“Spectrum is a scarce and valuable community resource which needs to be managed in a way that delivers the best value to the Australian public.

“The Government continues to examine the potential options for using the vacated broadcast spectrum.”

The reprieve followed the Senate passing a motion to save the community television stations, and months of political and community lobbying.

C44 development and strategy manager Kristen Hamill told InDaily on Tuesday morning that the station welcomed the extension and would spend the next year educating its audience on where to find the station online.

“A huge portion of our broadcast audience is that audience that might not have easy access to the internet,” Hamill said.

“Our religious and cultural broadcasts have been essential during Covid-19, particularly to older South Australians who do not have easy access to the internet.

“We will be working closely with these groups to help increase their digital literacy and find their favourite Channel 44 programs online.”

Earlier this month, InDaily reported that during the coronavirus pandemic Channel 44 had increased its viewership by 57,000.

Hamill said C44’s programming – which is already available online – would be moved to a newly created digital platform.

“Online platforms … are so oversaturated with content that there isn’t a home for really hyper-local content,” she said.

“So our plan, and this is something we’ve actually been working on with Melbourne since last year, is to build a proprietary, online platform that is both a video on-demand platform and a streaming service.

“It’s really a place to showcase local producers, local program-makers so they don’t get lost in the sea that is YouTube.”

Hamill said when the 12-month extension expired staff would be redeployed across the business.

“Right now, broadcast revenue makes up a huge portion of our stations revenue, so we’ll have to be working on other things to replace that,” she said.

Hamill said had the community television sector known they would still be on air six years after being told to move online, the other stations might have survived.

“The reality was we were given a series of short-term extensions and so it was really like starting our business over again every single time we received an extension,” she said.

“We did have an idea for about two weeks that there was an extension on the table for Channel 44 and that was through the advocacy of Rebekah Sharkie; she met with the Minister and advocated really strongly on our behalf.

“But what was a surprise was for our sister station, Channel 31 Melbourne – that offer was not on the table for them until yesterday.

“So it was really excited to see the news and we’re just thrilled that they are also being given a year extension. It means that we are still a community television sector, rather than one station.”

SA Senator Marielle Smith, who also lobbied for the extension, told InDaily that it was a “a much welcome reprieve”, but not a solution.

“I am relieved the Minister has finally listened to our community led campaign to keep Channel 44 on air,” she said.

“But let’s not pretend this represents a full commitment to the future of Community TV: it is only a 12-month reprieve and the long-term future of community television remains in question.

“Waiting until the last minute to make this decision has led to unnecessary suffering for staff, contributors and of course, viewers of community television.

“Whilst I welcome Minister Fletcher finally submitting to common sense, spare a thought for the contributors and staff who have suffered through this uncertainty.”

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