Nearly every single issue in Australia sees people arguing for either side. From the most contentious (asylum seekers) to the ones you'd think couldn't possibly be contentious (equal pay), there's always someone arcing up with an opposing argument.
So meet the only issue in Australia that doesn't have an opposing argument: community television.
Here's the skinny: in September of 2014, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that he would not renew community television's broadcast licence beyond 2015. His reasoning was that the testing and trialling of a new broadcasting compression format was required, and they needed to free up a "sixth channel" in order to do so.
He said that this move would actually benefit community television stations, because they could move online, and that's where the future is. Mr Turnbull is wrong in every possible respect.
This week marks the "Week of Action" for community television. It's the last stand. They're down to the wire, and only have days left to fight for their survival. And this is where you come in.
Okay, so why should I care?
Even if you don't watch community TV, you definitely watch/listen to/read people who got their start there. Don't believe me? It's happening right now. But forget about me, because you probably don't even realise just how much of the entertainment you love comes from community television. There are so few opportunities in this country for those hoping to break into TV to get their start, and community television has proven to be one of the best places not only to find talent, but for said talent to hone their skills.
Okay, so I get why you think I should care, but I'm still struggling to work up the energy. You didn't expect me to suddenly go from not-caring to caring in one paragraph, did you?
No but that's okay, because this is more about the government shutting down something for no good reason. Seriously, we challenge you to get to the end of this and figure out what possible benefit there is in community television being destroyed.
Okay, I like a challenge. So does anyone watch it?
Actually, yeah. Community television generally reaches about 3 million viewers each month in the capital cities it operates in. But it's not so much about commercial success as it is about providing a service for the community. It's about the fostering of local talent and an engagement with local audiences that you simply don't get from a globalised internet.
Okay, people watch it. But what's this thing costing me as a taxpayer?
Nothing. Nada. Zip. No funding comes from the government, and the only thing it gives up is a portion of the digital spectrum. Melbourne's Channel 31, for instance, raises its revenue from sponsorship announcements and airtime access fees for certain programs. Because its programs are largely made by volunteers, it is able to keep costs relatively low. But the point is, if you're worried about where your taxes are going, they're certainly not going there.
Okay, it's costing me nothing. But the spectrum is a valuable asset, so why can't we at least make money by selling it off?
There's a whole issue about how much of the digital spectrum should be sold off to commercial interests and how much should be kept as a public resource, and this gets us into a whole rabbit hole about the benefits vs disadvantages of privatisation. So let's avoid that argument. But you want to know why we shouldn't sell it off? Well, we can. But if it was sold to a shopping channel tomorrow, broadcasting on the spectrum couldn't be occur until the digital re-stack, which is currently planned for 2019. Which basically means that if community TV isn't broadcasting on that channel, it's just going to be static dead air for, at a bare minimum, four years.
Okay, so we can't sell it off. But Turnbull's right about the future being online, why doesn't community TV want to go online?
The community TV sector has long accepted that the future is online, but the fact is that it hasn't been given nearly enough time to move there. Malcolm Turnbull basically gave one year's notice, which might seem like a long time, but have you ever tried shifting an entire sector's business model? It takes time. Also, take a moment to speculate why channels seven, nine and ten haven't moved exclusively online if it's the internet is the future. That's because it is quite literally the future. In the present (that's where you and I live), 89 percent of all video hours consumed in Australia are delivered by broadcast television. So moving to a purely online model in the next seven months – even if it was achievable on a practical level – would put community television at an even bigger disadvantage than it's already at.
Okay, so community TV hasn't been given enough time to move online and the spectrum can't be used. But Turnbull said the channel was needed to test a new MPEG something-or-other?
The new MPEG-4 broadcasting format? Yeah, not so much. The mainstream networks—who don't appear to have any particular vested interest in community television staying on the air—refuted that claim, saying they're going to wait for the next mode of technology instead of investing time and effort into this one. And that's still some years away. So again, this channel will be used for static until (at the earliest) 2019. I like the soothing hiss of static as much as the next person, but I prefer local content.
Okay, so the MPEG testing argument doesn't wash. But this jerk I went to school with is currently enjoying success with a show he's hosting on Channel 31. Won't shutting down all community TV screw him over and make me feel better?
No, recent studies show that schadenfreude will only make you feel worse in the long run, and that living well is actually the best revenge. But I'm glad you brought up high school grievances, because that's literally the only argument left against extending the licence.
Okay, so it's still a valuable asset that serves the community, people still watch it, costs the taxpayer nothing, no commercial interests can use it until 2019, moving online is impractical in the near future, the MPEG testing argument doesn't wash, and I need to get over my high school grudge… so hang on, why is it being cut off again? Why the 2015 end date?
Nobody knows. There's no obvious, hidden, cryptic, or even ironic benefit to putting an end to community television in Australia. There's zero gain to be had in doing so. There is no one who will be mollified by its cessation.
Okay, so nobody knows why this is happening. Then wouldn't it be a slam dunk move for Turnbull to extend the licence, thus pleasing everybody connected with this issue?
Yes. And that's what this week is all about.
Okay, that's what this week is all about, and man, I'm really driving this conceit into the ground. So what is it you want me to do?
You can do a lot. You can add your name to the petition, you can email Malcolm Turnbull using the form email on this page, and you can tweet directly at Malc here so he gets the message right away. Remember to be firm, polite, and persuasive. You may not be personally invested in the future of community television, but if you care about the government stomping on the little guy for absolutely no reason, you have to add your voice to the chorus.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah
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