BY GILLIAN AERIA AND MARIA ABBATANGELO
Victorians who lobbied state government ministers have been credited with throwing Melbourne’s community television station Channel 31 (C31) an eleventh-hour lifeline.
Last week C31 general manager Shane Dunlop told the public Adelaide community television (C44) had received a 12-month extension from the federal government, but this was not going to apply to Melbourne’s C31.
“Once it became apparent to all and sundry that this was real and that [C]31 was going to miss out and switch off, I think this was the tipping point for the next level of support we subsequently received,” he said.
Based on discussions with the Victorian government last week, Mr Dunlop felt that the channel was “too far gone” to be saved. So he was surprised to hear of a U-turn.
“I’m going to chalk this one up to Victorian public support,” he said.
C31 was to be taken off the airwaves last night. But with less than 36 hours to go, the Victorian government approached Mr Dunlop with a possible extension, so long as C31 could submit a 12-month plan on how they would vacate the spectrum.
“It certainly would appear that the Andrews government has been instrumental in getting this last-minute extension for C31 Melbourne,” he said.
Mr Dunlop said the station was preparing to close its doors in early July because the pandemic made what was a “challenging transition” into an impossible one.
"Staff were clearing their desks because we were going to be laying everyone off, including myself,” Mr Dunlop said.
Mr Dunlop said its intervention marked the first time the Victorian government had pitched in funds to help C31.
Community groups made representations to the Minister for Multicultural Affairs Ros Spence and the Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley and those “flowed up” to Premier Daniel Andrews.
Mr Foley acknowledged the importance of keeping the community station on air.
“Community television is an important and highly valued service, particularly for members of Victoria’s diverse multicultural, disability and LGBTIQ communities,” he said.
Creative Victoria has also committed $120,000 to help C31 successfully transition to an online model.
The federal government is standing firm on its 2014 decision for community television to move online. Since then, it has granted C31 six license extensions and monies from community broadcasting grants to help with the transition.
In a statement, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said, “the final extension will allow a period for C31 and C44 to manage their day to day operations and take all the necessary steps to complete the transition”.
Mr Dunlop is “grateful” for the reprieve but has found the short-term extensions disruptive.
“Admittedly we would’ve appreciated it to have taken place three months ago and not have had to spend the last three months entirely shifting our operations to this fight.”
But there is concern for the online viability of C31 and C44 as community television in Sydney, Perth and Brisbane that made the switch are now defunct.
Getting elderly and vulnerable Victorians who are reliant on traditional media onto online streaming poses another challenge.
"Particularly during the day, we have a lot of elderly viewers. The message is loud and clear," Mr Dunlop said.
"A lot of those older Victorians don’t have the capacity to watch things online. They wouldn't know how to, even if they were given the tools to do so.”
But the Communications Minister said the broadcast spectrum occupied by C31 could be better used.
"Spectrum is a scarce and valuable community resource which needs to be managed in a way that delivers the best value to the Australian public," Mr Fletcher said.
"The government continues to examine the potential options for using the vacated broadcast spectrum.”