Channel 44's licence battle
Channel 44 has been in limbo since 2014 when then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced all Australian community televisions stations would have to move to an online-only delivery model by the end of 2015 to, allow the stations’ broadcast spectrums to be repurposed and trialled for new telecommunications technology.
Since then, Channel 44 and its Melbourne counterpart Channel 31 have received eight last minute license extensions – most recently a three-year extension granted last June.
The Morrison Government warned the most recent extension would be the last before community television is permanently switched off free to air TV on June 30, 2024.
But Labor announced last week that if elected, Channel 44 and Channel 31 will remain on air “until there is an alternative use for the radiofrequency spectrum they use”.
“Community television is a vibrant part of Australia’s media, which is why Labor has fought attempts by the Liberal National government to boot it off air,” Labor communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland said in a statement.
“Community TV adds to media diversity, local news and content, supports local businesses and community organisations and provides a much-needed training ground for the journalists, producers and the industry talent of the future.”
A spokesperson for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the Coalition’s policy on community television has not changed.
“In June 2021, the Morrison Government provided community television stations in Melbourne and Adelaide with a further three years under current licencing arrangements so that they may transition to online delivery,” the spokesperson said.
“That remains the Morrison Government’s policy.”
In 2020, Channel 44 warned that it would “almost certainly go into insolvency” if forced to move to an online-only model.
The station has since soft-launched an online live streaming and on-demand platform in conjunction with Channel 31 in preparation for being kicked off free-to-air TV.
Channel 44 general manager Lauren Hillman said viewership numbers are increasing on the “CTV+” platform, which will also soon have an accompanying mobile app on Android and IOS.
“Our viewership numbers are growing on our platform and I hope when we actually launch it formally and we launch the marketing campaign, we’ll see some bigger numbers and people downloading the apps to watch their favourite shows,” she said.
Asked whether she thought Channel 44 could ever be viable as an online-only service, Hillman said: “I think an online only model is a very future forward model that we would like to think could be viable in the future.”
“But I think we’d like to have the time – and by time I mean commitment … a five or 10-year strategy – to be able to make it viable,” she said.
“Because unlike Netflix, we’re not going to be a subscription model.”
Hillman also said there’s “still a conversation to be had” about the future use of Channel 44’s broadcast spectrum, but added “I’d like to think there was a place for community TV amongst the big free to air channels.”
“What’s Labor’s proposing gives us long-term certainty and commitment, and that’s the first time we’ve had this kind of certainty in over seven years,” she said.
“The current government have been granting us very short term in fact last minute license extensions over the past seven years and that just isn’t conducive with trying to build relationships with big sponsors or program makers or partnerships.
“So it will really allow us to concentrate on all the great things and all the great services that community TV provides instead of lobbying and rallying politicians to save the license.”
Hillman also suggested Labor’s policy could kick off a conversation about re-licensing community TV stations in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth that went off-air after the Coalition announced its intention to repurpose their broadcast spectrum.
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