Community television has evolved in diverse settings, across broadcast, satellite, cable and broadband platforms. Today, the sector includes free-to-air digital television channels, known colloquially as ‘Channel 31’, as well as remote Indigenous television services. These stations represent a decades-long effort by community television groups to secure access to the airwaves.
Community television was established to provide non-professional video makers with a means to reach local audiences. For some groups, this symbolised structural change within a media landscape dominated by commercial and public service players. However, community television has struggled to maintain its foothold on the free-to-air broadcast television platform, due to competing demands for broadcast spectrum. The stations have nonetheless been an important provider of local programming, content innovation and broadcast training.
Community television emerged out of the video access movement of the early 1970s. Affordable and portable videotape technology enabled non-professionals to experiment with video production, and to record events or stories that were outside the purview of the mainstream media. In 1974, 10 video access centres were established with support from the Australia Council, prompting a campaign for channels to distribute community screen content.
In the early 1980s, groups in Melbourne commenced test transmissions, available only to the small fragment of households that could receive Channel 47. Melbourne’s video access centre, Open Channel, also screened two community television ‘windows’ on SBS in 1982. Melbourne’s St Kilda Access Television (SKA TV) conducted Australia’s first full test transmission on a channel known as the ‘sixth channel’ (Channel 31) in 1989. The test was granted on the understanding that the channel was reserved for a fourth commercial network, and not intended for community use. At the same time, a Bill was passed in parliament that allowed for sponsorship on test transmissions, allowing groups to explore the viability of self-funded stations. Spectrum access, sustainability and a suitable licensing framework were to become the core issues in the community television campaign over the next three decades.
Despite the persistence of metropolitan groups, the first community stations to get off the ground were located in central Australia. Indigenous television commenced in the mid-1980s in the townships of Ernabella (EVTV) and Yuendumu (Warlpiri Media Association). American anthropologist Eric Michaels worked with Kurt (Leonard) Japanangka Granites and Francis Jupurrurla Kelly to establish the Warlpiri Media Association station in Yuendumu. At the same time, educators Rex Guthrie and Neil Turner worked with the people of Ernabella, including Simon and Panjiti Tjiyangu, to establish EVTV. The stations, which commenced as pirate (unlicensed) broadcasters, were awarded licences under the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) from 1987.
By the late 1990s, the remote Indigenous broadcasting sector was sharing video content using a portion of Imparja Television’s satellite transponder capacity. This service was formally established as the Indigenous Community Television (ICTV) channel in 2001.
Other attempts to establish community television included a cable television experiment, organised by Telecom (now Telstra) and Metro Television (now Metro Screen) in Sydney’s Centennial Park in 1993, which included more than 80 hours of locally made programming distributed to 300 homes. Although pay television providers Optus and Foxtel would eventually run their own locally oriented channels, these remained under the control of the commercial operators.
While community television experimented with various delivery platforms and business models, its fate ultimately was tied to the sixth high-power channel—the only remaining nationally available channel in the spectrum plans. In 1992, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure assessed the suitability of various non-commercial services, including community access, education, parliamentary broadcasts, Indigenous broadcasting and independent film. Although the committee preferred educational use of the channel, it recommended that the sixth channel be made available for community television on a trial basis.
Groups in Sydney, Lismore, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth were licensed from 1993. Two additional licences awarded in Bendigo and Hobart failed to get off the ground. The groups were licensed as temporary open narrowcasting services under what became known as the ‘community television trial’. The community stations were required to be not for profit, and were expected to be guided by community broadcasting licence restrictions if they were to progress beyond the trial phase. However, the open narrowcasting licence meant that the regulator could not enforce sponsorship conditions, allowing stations to enter into financial relationships that did not technically fit within the guidelines of community broadcasting.
The trial commenced without government funding for infrastructure or programming. Stations sold airtime to help pay for transmission, as well as relying on investment from university partners. A series of unresolved inquiries and government reviews ensued, including the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s Sixth Channel Report, which supported community television but was never tabled in parliament. The community television ‘trial’ lasted for a decade.
The delay was largely caused by the introduction of digital television, which placed new pressures on spectrum planning. The initial suggestion from government was that community television be ‘carried’ by a new type of television service called ‘datacasting’. When datacasting was thwarted by a lack of commercial interest and a change of government, community television was effectively sidelined.
The sector’s peak body, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA), began lobbying for an end to the trial, hoping that if full community broadcasting licences were issued, arrangements for simulcasting in digital would have to follow. A statutory review of community television was tabled in parliament in June 2002. It recommended greater regulatory certainty as well as stronger accountability and governance mechanisms. New licensing arrangements were put in place later that year, and Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth received permanent analogue community licences in 2004. The Sydney and Adelaide licences were not awarded to the incumbent stations, but to new applicants, with Adelaide remaining on a temporary (trial) licence. Lismore’s LINC TV also remained on a temporary licence.
The number of community television stations has remained relatively low compared with community radio. This is in part because of the expense of running television stations. Moreover, although the sixth analogue channel was reserved for community television at the start of the trial, in 1999 that reservation was revoked, which meant that only those areas with an incumbent service could be guaranteed use of the channel. The Australian Broadcasting Authority did agree to make analogue channels available on a case-by-case basis in regional areas, where there was still spectrum available. As a result, a group in Mt Gambier, Bushvision, received a trial licence in 2005. Novacast, located in Newcastle (the largest non-capital city in Australia), applied for a community television licence that same year but was informed that there was no spectrum available in the area. The group instead joined Satellite Community Television, a group of program providers whose work is available on the UBI World TV package. LINC TV in Lismore attempted to extend its transmission reach to the densely populated coastal areas, but discovered that the sixth channel reservation had been deleted in a 2002 Licence Area Plan.
In 2005, the CBAA conducted a survey of the four metropolitan stations operating that year. It revealed that these stations were screening 164 hours of locally produced programming a week, including 61 hours of news and 33 hours of ethnic programming. By 2006, the sector was reasonably well established in urban areas, with a combined national audience estimated by the CBAA at 3.8 million accumulated monthly viewers. Despite a long sequence of reviews and amendments to the 1998 digital television legislation, there is still no policy or resolution regarding the future of community television.
In 2009, Melbourne’s C31 claimed to have lost 20 per cent of its viewers due to households migrating to digital. In November, the Labor Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, decided to allocate the vacant spectrum known as Channel A (which had been reserved for datacasting by the previous government) to community television for digital transmission. The government also allocated $2.6 million to support digital transmission costs. However, spectrum was only allocated to community television until the end of 2013. At the time of writing, the future of the channel remains uncertain. Alternative uses of the spectrum were the subject of much debate in the digital dividend and convergence reviews, including mobile broadband and mobile broadcasting.
Access 31 in Perth ceased transmission in August 2008, due to financial difficulties. West TV (WTV, formerly CTV, a group that had been producing programming for Access 31) was awarded a digital-only trial licence in November 2009, commencing broadcasts in April 2010, leaving only three stations with full community television licences. Sydney’s TVS was the first to commence digital transmission in March 2010. Melbourne and Brisbane commenced soon after.
As a result of the government’s decision to provide digital television via the satellite-direct-to-home VAST platform, the vast majority of community television licences serving remote Indigenous communities were switched off in 2013. (By early 2014, the only remaining terrestrial Indigenous station was Mulka TV in Yirrkala.) In order to maintain community television content distribution for remote Indigenous communities, Senator Conroy granted ICTV transponder capacity and resources to transmit on the VAST platform. Despite being a narrowcasting satellite service, ICTV remains community controlled, and works closely with the remote Indigenous broadcasting sector. Three Indigenous television services are run as not-for-profit terrestrial narrowcasting services: an Indigenous station in Broome, GTV, run by a not-for-profit organisation and community radio licensee Goolarri Media Enterprises, received an open narrowcasting television licence through competitive tender in 1997; Ngarda TV in Roebourne (Western Australia) and Larrakia TV in Darwin also operate as Indigenous-run terrestrial narrowcasting television services. In 2008, metropolitan community television stations formed their own peak body, the Australian Community Television Alliance, out of concern that the CBAA reflected its majority radio membership. Community television was also excluded from access to Community Broadcasting Foundation funding until 2012, when the first television content funding round was announced.
REFs: K. Howley (ed.), Understanding Community Media; M. Meadows et al., Community Media Matters (2007); E. Rennie, Community Media (2006).