In his recent keynote address at the RadComms 2014 speech and his blog post The Future of Community TV, Malcolm Turnbull discussed the government’s recent decision to not renew community television stations’ broadcast licenses at the end of 2015. This is partly to free up the sixth channel used by community television. This will “assist in the testing and migration” of MEG-4 format for the commercial broadcasters. There are two key points raised by Mr Turnbull that I would like to address. The claims made that online is the future for community television, particularly in the next 12 months. Also the another key argument raised as part of the governments decision, audience share (ratings).
Turnbull notes in his keynote address that “the best outcome for community television is that in future it uses the Internet as its distribution platform”. He also notes that “some community television representatives, acknowledging that the Internet is their ultimate home”. The use of online by television broadcasters is not a new concept, nor is the Internet, as noted by Turnbull. What he does not acknowledge, is that commercial broadcasters are also in agreement that the Internet is the future for television. Network Ten stated in its 1999 Annual report that, “we believe that far from posing a competitive threat to free-to-air television, the Internet will more than likely open up considerable further opportunities for us”. Despite this it was only last year that all three Australian commercial broadcasters had clearly established catch-up television services. Much of this rests on the fact that Australians, despite the increase in viewing media on other platforms, “watched an additional 37 minutes of broadcast television” in the first quarter of this year, according to the Australian Mulit-Screen Report Q1 2014.
As Turnbull notes, “as of May 2013 there were 7.9 million people in Australia using professional content services over the Internet such as catch-up TV, video on demand and IPTV”. This is half of the ‘around 13.5 million Australians”, that he states are watching television each day. It must also be considered that, monthly viewing of television is over 93 hours, this is in comparison to viewing online video on other devices (PC/Laptop, Mobile and Tablet), which is under 12 hours . If there is such a considerable difference in viewing across the “old” and “new” platforms, how can online be “in the best interests of community television” ?
Do Ratings Matter for Community Television?
Ratings are an obsession of the commercial networks and a key factor in their selling of advertisement air-time. In his recent blog post, Turnbull states that the “average prime time audiences of CTV are low with only 6000 viewers across all five capitals”. By stating the average, C31 Melbourne argues Turnbull “seeks to diminish the quantum of interest in community television in the face of the overwhelming public backlash against his decision”. Further noting that the average of community television being low is not surprising “due to the niche and eclectic nature of the program and the fact that stations do not operate primarily to attract strong “average” audiences”. C31 Melbourne argues that the “unique” number of viewers is a more appropriate measure, to which it has “450,000 – 500,000 viewers every scheduled week”. At a national level “community television is watched by over 3 million Australians every month”. These figures are great than NITV for both its reach and average audience. Despite this, C31 Melbourne strongly notes that NITV is “an integral and important part of our media landscape”, as is community television.
Placing the ratings figures aside, the bigger question here is, should ratings be a major consideration in relation to community television? When reviewing the Broadcasting Act 1992, it is clear that commercial and community broadcasters are regarded different and as such commercial licences are “in a manner that causes them not to operate in the same way as commercial television broadcasting services”. The Act also states that community broadcasters “are provided for community purposes” and not to be “operated for profit or as part of a profit-making enterprise”. Another key point addressed in the Act is that community broadcasters must provide programs that “are able to be received by commonly available equipment” and that the programs “are made available free to the general public”. Taking the last two points into consideration, 99.7 % of Australians have a television in their home, of which almost two thirds have two or more. In comparison to this figure Australian homes with other platforms includes, Tablets (42%), Smart phones (69%) Internet access (80%). Whilst the percent of Australia homes is high, these come at a cost and contradicts the Acts point that community television programs “are made available free to the general public”.
Community TV’s Future
I question whether this change, “will deliver wider audiences, at less cost on a wider range of devices and the ability to do more than linear broadcasting”, particularly in the near future. After attending the Antenna awards on Wednesday night, it is clear the impact community television has made over the past 20 years. Whilst the media environment is changing, to remove community television from traditional broadcasting would impact both the audience and the producers of the programming. It would remove the possibility for many to gain key skills associated to media production. Yes online is part of this, but not all. As noted earlier the audience has not changed in a way that a full online broadcaster can be successful. If this was the case the commercial would have also been online. This further questions how the Government define television and whether the broadcasting act will include Community television if it is to move online.