Where is OurSpace on Digital Television?

‘Community media is undoubtedly the way of the future’ —Rupert Murdoch (The Australian, 29 June 2006)

Think very carefully before you purchase a digital free-to-air television set or box. Depending on where you live, you might lose an entire channel.


This may come as a surprise. It is unlikely that you will have read about it in the news or seen a warning sticker on a set-top-box. We were told that digital television would offer more television, not less. In fact, the underlying principle of digital conversion was that households who purchase digital receivers would still get to see programs shown on conventional analogue television. It was supposed to be ‘TV for all’, delivered free-to-air, whether through microchips or rabbit ears, right up until the analogue switch-off date. Why would any of us purchase a digital television set if we were going to get less television?

Analogue community television is watched by over 3 million Australians in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Lismore and Mt Gambier. These stations (generally located on Channel 31) have not been allowed to broadcast digitally. To do so, they would need to be allocated extra spectrum (another channel) and funds to meet the transmission costs. As more households purchase digital television receivers, the community television audience will continue to diminish. At some point, program-makers will pack away their video cameras and sponsors will close their cheque books. Without digital simulcast, community television will not last long.

Community stations are run by not-for-profit associations, which provide training and a distribution platform to community groups, independent producers and educational institutions. When the community television trial commenced in 1993, many doubted that there would be producers or an audience for such a service. Although community radio had been broadcasting successfully since the 1970s, television was much more expensive to produce and run. The community TV sector did manage to survive and, in 2004, stations in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane were awarded full community broadcasting licences. ‘Channel 31′ became a permanent fixture of the analogue television landscape. Unfortunately, by that point, analogue television was due to be switched off within the decade.

The sector’s peak body, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, has been expecting an announcement on digital television since 1998 when the government guaranteed the community sector free access to one standard definition channel. A standard channel allows a broadcaster to provide a single stream of content at the equivalent quality to an analogue channel. Even if this promise is fulfilled, it may not be ideal. Each of the commercial and national broadcasters has been granted a full 7MHz channel. With the equivalent spectrum, community television could broadcast multiple channels for different community uses, deliver high definition programming and provide text-based information alongside programming.

A standard definition channel would maintain current analogue services, without room for new programming or participants. Although this is adequate in the short-term, the community sector will eventually require more capacity. Otherwise, as technical and content innovation in the broadcasting industries progresses, community television will be left stranded in an out-of-date single channel — effectively ‘locked’ into the analogue paradigm within a digital environment. The community sector also acts as the industry’s primary training ground for talent and technical expertise. Unless stations have the ability to move with the times, their volunteers will no longer meet industry expectations. While our bureaucrats bend over backwards to convince production companies to get creative for the knowledge economy, the main R&D incubator for that industry has been sidelined.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Rupert Murdoch is right: sourcing and showcasing citizen-made content is undoubtedly the way of the future. With the rise of the Internet, media participation (blogging, podcasting, streaming etc) has become a widespread occurrence. When News Corporation bought the web-based MySpace, described by Wired Magazine as a ‘global block party’, it already had 20 million members. Former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, has established current.tv, a youth-oriented cable television channel where viewers submit and vote on programs via the web. The channel claims to give ‘those who crave the empowerment of the Web the same opportunity for expression on television’. For Australia’s community broadcasting sector ‘user-led’ media comes as no surprise — community media advocates had long been predicting that accessible platforms and cheaper equipment would transform the way that media is made and consumed.

Community broadcasting is well-placed to make the most of the media participation occurring on and off the net. Community radio and television are not just user-led media; they are also user-governed. With three decades of experience, the community sector has developed robust models for training, management and volunteer coordination. Digital television provides an opportunity to expand on this achievement, towards a range of new content possibilities and even funding models.

The community sector has different priorities to the commercial and public service broadcasters and is likely to develop non-standard television forms as it negotiates the many interests that it is required to serve. The government’s vision for datacasting — consisting of information fact sheets, short-form programming and local content — was a ‘dead duck’ before the spectrum made it to auction. Such content is far more likely to come out of community organisations seeking to connect with their constituencies than from commercial enterprise. Ultimately, it is impossible to predict exactly what innovations might occur through community use of digital spectrum, but it is possible to develop models that support and encourage new services. This means rethinking spectrum use, management and revenue sources.

Digital technology may have delivered more channels through increased spectrum capacity, but it also brought with it new pressures to see spectrum in purely economic terms. Funding a viable transition for community television will cost the government less than a tenth of the subsidy that they have committed to regional commercial stations to assist them with digital conversion. The real price, in the government’s eyes, is the ‘opportunity cost’ of taking up spectrum that might otherwise be sold off. But it’s not too late for the government to institute a viable simulcast for existing stations and to reserve a full channel for community use at, or before, analogue switch-off.

One way or the other, community broadcasting will be transformed by digital television. Let’s hope it will be a positive transformation towards an equitable, accessible and innovative showcase of citizen and community expression: OurSpace, rather than MySpace, on digital TV.

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