A free-to-air future for black TV


 Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: Australia’s only national Indigenous broadcaster will have its own free-to-air channel by the end of the year, but does it come at a cost?

After more than a year of uncertainty over the future of National Indigenous Television (NITV), the federal government recently announced the channel would merge with SBS, handing SBS an additional $63 million over four years in the May budget.

It followed widespread rumours that NITV would fall under the control of the ABC, made during a government review into the Indigenous broadcasting sector in 2010.

While NITV now has certainty over its existence, the SBS takeover has raised questions over whether its independence would be threatened under new management.

NITV’s interim CEO Michael McMichael hinted at tension in The Australian newspaper shortly after the federal government’s announcement.

“One of the issues I am concerned about – although I know SBS is very aware of it and are addressing it – is that the channel is not another multicultural channel, and Indigenous Australians are not another type of multicultural Australia.

“They’re the first Australians and their voices are distinctive because of that, and I think there may be some real challenges on SBS’s part internally to make sure that is recognised and promulgated.”

Mr McMichael also told the paper he was concerned the funding would be diverted from the channel to other SBS operations.

“The risk is there that at some point in time someone delves into the NITV budget to shore up something else,” he said. “But I don’t think this administration has any intention of doing that.”

SBS Managing Director Michael Ebeid has been quick to hose down concerns.

He told Tracker this month that ensuring NITV’s editorial independence was the “easiest” part of the transition.

SBS has installed current NITV Director of Content Tanya Denning in the role of ‘channel manager’.

“We’ve got an Indigenous channel manager who’s going to be looking after the channel… (Tanya) will have the responsibility of commissioning content, and running the look and feel of NITV,” he told Tracker.

“She will still report to the head of television (at SBS). One of the key things about bringing NITV to SBS is that we will be able to enable the NITV team to continue doing what they’ve always done well.

“We will be able to support them in terms of resources and technology and the scale of operation.

“With the channel manager, we will give her guidance and advice in terms of strategic decisions around programming.

“We’ll give scheduling type advice, but we won’t give advice about actual content.

“That will be up to the Indigenous team.

“Tanya will be strongly supported by other members of the SBS wider group – so marketing and legal teams.”

Ms Denning told Tracker she was confident the channel would be able to retain its voice.

“I’m completely satisfied. There’ll be a team of Indigenous creators and managers within the channel.

“…It will really go along the lines of Indigenous responsibility and accountability.

“As far as any SBS influence coming into our Indigenous independence, I don’t see any of that happening.

“The way we are setting the channel up, there are definite models in place to protect that.

“I feel very secure and confident in what has been achieved to date.”

One of the important parts of becoming a statutory authority, Ms Denning says, is the greater accountability the channel has to taxpayers, and its viewers. Previously, NITV was set up as a private company.

“With a private company model there was less influence and less accountability about what happens. But with a statutory authority, it gets questioned and Michael Ebeid or SBS becomes accountable,” Ms Denning said.

“This has been a 20 year campaign to get a national Indigenous broadcaster. For the first five years, the private company model was the perfect model for the time.

“We had small amounts of money going along a private business model and it allowed us to create high volumes of content. It gave us the opportunity to learn on the job.

“… It’s important to acknowledge that even though we are losing a private company, I do think that it is important that our Indigenous content should be in public broadcasting hands.”

One of the other issues NITV must grapple with has been the constant criticism that it doesn’t utilise enough remote and regional Indigenous media and content.

It was a criticism of the Stevens review into Indigenous Broadcasting, which recommended “NITV allocate a greater proportion of its existing budget to source content from regional and remote Indigenous producers….”

Mr Ebeid told Tracker there would be a concerted effort to look at the entire Indigenous production sector.

“We’re going to spend time getting to know it, working out who’s providing what sort of content and working out what’s available.

“Tanya is very keen to broaden that spectrum of available content.

“There has been criticism in the past, and in fairness you have to remember the channel operates on a tight budget.

“She has had to make pretty tough decisions about what to produce and commission with producers.”

Ms Denning rejects the perception that NITV had restricted its budget to a handful of Indigenous producers.

“If you look at our books and look at the facts, we worked with Indigenous production companies all over the country, including in remote and regional areas,” Ms Denning said.

“We invested millions of dollars in central Australia. So there are those perceptions out there but the books are open for anyone who wants to see.

“The challenge was that over the past three years, we could only go from year-to-year planning (because of the funding).

“We couldn’t plan a schedule beyond 12 months which was extremely challenging, which meant you could only schedule certain content.”

Mr Ebeid has also rejected suggestions that SBS would soak up NITV-specific funding.

“The funding we have is about $15 million a year. I think it is $15.1 million. Obviously we will spend that money in the first year,” Mr Ebeid told a Senate estimates hearing last month.

“A fair bit of that first lot of money will go to equipment – to buy that transmission equipment that we need.

“That is several million dollars. One of the things we are working really hard to do at the moment is ensure that the amount of money we are spending on content does not decrease.

“We have a lot of set-up costs initially, and then in the following year we will be able to return some more money for content.”
For now, NITV will still remain on Pay-TV, and currently there will be no change in programming. It is expected to stay this way even after the merger in July.

But Mr Ebeid says the goal is to have a free-to-air NITV up and running by December. He says a launch date has not yet been set.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity,” Mr Ebeid told Tracker.

“We think it’s a great opportunity for Indigenous Australia to share stories and culture with the broader community.

“We’re really pleased that about 35-odd staff will be coming over to SBS… one of the real benefits for the staff has been that for the last five years they’ve all lived on a year-to-year basis.

“The government has been renewing funding every single year and not giving any certainty about the way forward.

“This gives the channel a tremendous amount of certainty, not only for employment, but also for the Indigenous community.

“This channel is now in place indefinitely, so (viewers) aren’t left wondering about whether this is the last year they will see it.”

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