Moving community TV online is a turn-off in more ways than one

Film and television workers cut their teeth at places such as Melbourne’s Channel 31. Sascha Grant

Last week, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed that community television broadcasts will be pushed online at the end of 2015.

Turnbull’s announcement came as a surprise to many of those working in community television, so what’s the likely impact of this transition on the industry?

Many of our well-known television personalities began their broadcasting careers on community TV. Rove McManus, Corinne Grant, Waleed Aly and of course Hamish and Andy are all beneficiaries of the community TV melting pot, and it could reasonably be argued that the commercial and public broadcasters who currently employ these luminaries and their compatriots are also benefiting from the community training ground.

In addition to the handful of recognisable names, there are hundreds of others who cut their teeth at places such as the Melbourne community channel Channel 31 who are now quietly working in various technical and craft roles at all levels of the media industry.

Australia’s Rove McManus interviewing guests on his LA weekly episodic talkshow. AAP/ FOXTEL/ Craig T. Mathew

Networks, whether public or private, benefit from having a pool of young, enthusiastic and – most importantly – experienced cast and crew to draw from. Rather than take a risk on an unknown quantity, employers are able to take their pick from a talent pool that has likely already made its rookie mistakes.

The experience gained through working in broadcast television, albeit in a modest setting, simply cannot be replaced by a switch to webcasting.

The pressure to perform when you know your work is being broadcast on one of a limited number of free-to-air stations is vastly greater than that experienced when you are providing content for one of more than a billion discrete websites.

The constant adrenaline rush of free-to-air comes from the fact anyone could be watching, while webcasters are usually more concerned that perhaps no-one is.

Of course, there are already community-based online channels in existence, such as Hive Television, but they have neither the profile nor the audience penetration of a “real” television channel – one that exists on the free-to-air spectrum and can be viewed on a television set without the need for either IPTV or a pay-TV interface.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. AAP/ Nikki Short

There are certainly many older Australians who benefit from nostalgia programming on free-to-air community channels who would lose that service completely in a shift to online-only.

Let’s face it, nursing home audiences in their 70s, 80s and even 90s will not follow community television to online delivery, destroying a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby community channels provide free content from as far back as the 1930s that is of specific interest to elderly viewers. This small but valued audience sector will lose out.

For younger viewers the serendipitous discovery of local content on the telly will disappear. Channel surfing is a real thing in the world of broadcast television, where viewers make unexpected discoveries as they flip through the available offerings whenever boredom or advertising strikes.

Screenwriter and fellow lecturer Ben Michael said to me:

… would I watch two metal heads talk guitar solos online? Probably not; there’s too much stuff I’m actually into to drag my eyes in their direction. But when I’m flipping channels and they come up, do I get a kick out of how bizarre, crazy and great Channel 31 can be? You bet I do.

To equate webcasting with broadcasting is disingenuous and, while it may be an understandable confusion coming from the less tech-savvy members of our current government, it seems less so when it is announced by the current Mr Broadband.

One wonders what cost-benefit analyses or economic and social impact surveys have been completed prior to the decision being taken?

Are we simply seeing the predictable ideological outcome of a government that cannot bear to see a tradeable commodity being “wasted” and wants to grab the opportunity to make a buck by selling off the spectrum?

Considering the difficult financial times faced by our current commercial broadcasters, one must assume the spectrum is not being earmarked for the long-awaited fourth commercial channel, so it must presumably be needed for other purposes.

Perhaps to support the revised NBN rollout? There is, after all, only so much Wi-Fi spectrum to go around.