Up until Monday things were looking pretty grim for Channel 31 Melbourne.
Having been on air for 22 years it had just 3 more weeks before an enforced government decision meant it would have to switch off its signal and move to being online only.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield (himself a former viewer) had been silent on a request to cancel or delay the big switch, set to impact thousands of volunteers and viewers across Greater Melbourne and Geelong. A marathon 144 hour Live broadcast was ramping up for a last hurrah.
After months of silence, at 3pm on Monday Head of Production Shane Dunlop got the call – they could have a 6 month extension.
“They’ve recognised the reality of the situation that there are no immediate plans for that space, so why shuffle us off in the meantime?” he tells TV Tonight.
“It’s still business as usual given that we are having to plan for a future where the TV (broadcast) doesn’t exist, but it also opens the window for a continued fight.
“You could make the argument about why 6 months, why not 12 months or 2 years? But what they’ve done buys us time to make sure we’ve got a chance to make the digital future a success. It also opens the window for anything to happen from here on. We’re still alive. We live another day to a brand new year. Who knows what happens in the political landscape?”
C31 Melbourne is not alone, although it is the only Community TV broadcaster to have remained on air across its license lifetime. C44 Adelaide, C31 Brisbane and West TV Perth, along with Sydney’s now-defunct TVS, all got the bad news in September 2014 -from then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull- they would have to move online to free up valuable spectrum.
“In 2014 we were told it would be the end of 2014 which was 3 months (notice). Then it was the end of 2015 and we had a big campaign, and got the extension to the end of 2016. At which point they told us that would be it… don’t come back and ask again,” Dunlop explains.
“But the extension we were offered had the strictest of conditions.
“We had no choice. Either we were off air last year or we accepted an extension for an additional year under very strict terms. Which we’d already violated by asking for (another) extension.
“The choice given to us was ‘Go off this year or accept our terms for another year.’”
This week postponed the inevitable once more, buying C31 more time to completely reinvent its business model. As a $2.5m business with no direct government funding, it relies on selling ad space for 80% of its funding (the rest comes from various strategies such as maintaining social media accounts, fee for service production and small grants from the Community Broadcasting Foundation). But how do you sell ads for local business online when there are no guarantees the audience will be there?
“There are no TV commercials to sell anymore,” Dunlop concedes.
“We’re pretty realistic. It’s just not likely to be strong enough for us to be a great earner. Where we know there is success is by still engaging with the same people we’ve always engaged.
“They are losing an opportunity to talk to their own community”
C31 has been planning a business model around production of Live events for niche sports, festivals and local councils and engagement with philanthropy and community groups -as it has always done.
“Ironically you could make an argument that we’ve never been stronger from an organisational standpoint.
“We’ve been forced to find a way to transition to online only, and through that process we’ve built relationships with YouTube and Google that likely wouldn’t have occurred if we’d been able to rest on our laurels as a TV broadcaster.
“We exist more for community groups in LGBTI or Multicultural groups who don’t have access to mainstream media currently.
“Sri Lankan news might be 9:30 on a Tuesday morning on SBS, made in Sri Lanka. But every week we have 3 hours of Melbourne-made Sri Lankan programming which speaks to a really vibrant community. And I think in the Maltese community there are just as many Maltese living in Australia as there are in Malta.
“So they are losing an opportunity to talk to their own community on Free to Air TV.”
Big names like Rove McManus, Hamish & Andy and Waleed Aly are regularly trotted out as those who appeared on Community TV early in their Logie-winning careers (and all have made supportive statements). But Dunlop reiterates thousands more who have benefited from the Melbourne station alone.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has gone through a tertiary journalism course who hasn’t had to engage with us,” he continues.
“They might not go on and be big stars but they will be actively working in television. Then there are countless people behind the scenes, famously RMITV, NMIT or any of the tertiary institutions. There are kids in the studio now who are recent graduates or are still studying.”
“If the election had turned the other way we would have been ok.”
C31 has a volunteer database of around 1500 people, with around 150 who actively turn up for TV production.
News that the channel would have to transition to online has been incorrectly perceived by some that C31 is shutting down entirely -and it draws an emotional response. While that’s technically incorrect, Dunlop recognises the headline helps the conversation about the merits of the channel and prompts people to drill down to the facts.
With another 6 months, he remains optimistic for change. The 144 hour marathon will be postponed, but it may be called upon once more in June.
“We’ve had interactions from the Labor Party, the Greens and Senator Xenaphon –all of whom are in support of us,” he continues.
“If the election had turned the other way we would have been ok.
“But we’re thankful to Senator Fifield for seeing reason and making the fair and just decision to give us another 6 months. We asked for 12 but we will take 6. In the meantime we will keep having the conversation publicly and privately about why we deserve to be on more permanently –whilst also accepting the fact that, like everybody else, we need to adopt different ways of getting our stuff out there.”