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Community television stations still fighting to stay on air

Media and marketing

Community television stations C44 Adelaide and C31 Melbourne are urging the federal government to throw them a lifeline before their free-to-air television broadcasting licenses expire on June 30.

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C44 Adelaide general manager Lauren Hillman said the station and its Melbourne counterpart, C31, had been lobbying Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher to be included in the government’s proposed Green Paper media reforms and to keep the stations on-air until their broadcast spectrum moves online.

The proposed reforms, which were announced last year, are intended to help secure new funding for Australian content and journalism, while allowing broadcasters to operate with a cheaper licence in exchange for a reduced broadcasting spectrum.

Hillman said as part of the proposal, called the Media Reform Green Paper, commercial channels, including the ABC and SBS, would move to a lower frequency digital broadcast, while community television had been invited to provide a submission to a consultation for the proposal.

“The 600 megahertz spectrum that we currently occupy, and all of the commercial channels occupy … will be freed up and so that would allow the federal government to sell off the spectrum, if they so desire,” she said.

“But we, community television, haven’t been included in that next phase of digital technology.

“We would also strongly suggest that community TV deserves a place within the longer-term framework of free-to-air TV.”

Consultation for the Green Paper is due to close on May 23, one month before C44 and C31’s broadcasting license expire.

C31 and C44 have been on life-support since since then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull decided in 2014 to move community broadcasting onto an online-only delivery model.

The federal government has since provided seven last-minute broadcast licence extensions, and insisted the stations transition to an online-only model.

During that time, community TV stations in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth have folded – leaving only Adelaide and Melbourne.

C31 and C44 said while they are committed to a digital future, it was not possible to transition to an online-only model by June.

The Australian Community Television Alliance said it believed waiting until May to undertake an appropriate review of community television’s response would be too late for the stations.

C31 general manager Shane Dunlop said switching the stations off before the consultation process was complete would “deny the Australian public an outcome that works towards their overall best interests”.

“The broadcast spectrum we currently occupy is not scheduled to be repurposed until 2024, possibly later,” he said.

“A digital re-stack is then slated to occur sometime around 2026. So turning us off now is completely unnecessary.”

Hillman said the stations had written to Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher in a bid to discuss the broadcast deadline and upcoming submission, but was yet to receive a response.

“The challenge of transitioning community TV viewers and replacing the substantial revenue that free-to-air television still generates in the time frame the Government has outlined just isn’t feasible, particularly as we come out of a devastating pandemic,” she said.

“The Green Paper sees all free-to-air broadcasters converting to more efficient broadcast technology after the re-stack, which would allow for more channels using much less space.

“There is a pathway forward for community TV and we’re urging Minister Fletcher to consider it.”

A spokesperson for the minister said community television had “been requested to move towards alternative provision of their services in a digital environment”.

“Consultation on the Media Reform Green Paper continues until May 23 and at this stage no decisions has (sic) been made regarding any potential spectrum re-stack,” they said.

Fletcher has previously said an online model was best for community TV and that the Federal Government would work with both stations for a successful transition.

In May, a new ACTA video-on-demand streaming platform and app will be launched, coinciding with the 10th Antenna Awards on 29 May.

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