At 11:59pm on Tuesday Channel 31 Melbourne will switch off its broadcast signal, three months shy of 26 years on air.
The Community TV channel has been unsuccessful in securing an extension to remain on air, ending 6 years of reprieves and campaigning which was triggered by then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordering channels to transition to online models and yield their spectrum.
Since then Sydney, Brisbane and Perth channels have all shut down.
Shane Dunlop, general manager of C31 tells TV Tonight, “We’ve not been successful in getting a response either from the minister’s office or from the Department of Communications. That’s to several calls and emails. We are still waiting of course for official confirmation that Adelaide’s extension has been granted.
“There is a different political climate in Adelaide than there is in Victoria. Perhaps that’s the best way of putting it.
“It’s become evident to us that this government is not particularly moved by any of the cases or arguments we have spent over the last 6 years putting to them. It doesn’t matter what kind of case we can make. It falls on deaf ears. There is an unwillingness or a lack of understanding with regards to what makes Community TV tick.
“So we’re not really holding out hope, nor do we want to spend our last week on the air crying and whinging for another short term reprieve, when we have already experienced enough heartbreak and mistreatment.”
The channel and its fierce network of community groups across Melbourne & Geelong have fought a long fight, including garnering support from multi-denominational Churches whose services it has broadcast throughout the pandemic.
But failing an 11th hour reprieve, Dunlop concedes it is now time to look back on their many achievements.
“Certainly internally at 31 we’re preparing for switch off,” he admits.
“We know that our producers are probably going through the motions themselves and probably are still trying to make that last ditch plea for an extension … that may well eventuate, you never know.
“This time, it feels a lot different.”
“We have come at this from every angle: jobs and employment, multiculturalism, local content, arts, youth journalism, local journalism, and then you’ve got, of course, the pandemic and all the live streaming work we did. Notwithstanding, keeping the elderly community of Melbourne connected, which is underreported. None of it counted. None of it made any iota of a difference to them.
“In previous iterations we always had hope, particularly because we knew that we could achieve last minute extensions, but this time, it feels a lot different.”
Channel 31, based in William St in Melbourne’s CBD, has around 20 employees, and hires about 50 freelancers across the year. But there are around 100 shows that air each week, the bulk of which is done by some 1000 volunteers.
Amongst the original community groups are Bent TV, Northern Access Television. SYN and RMIT TV. Long-running shows include The Local Footy Show, car show In Pit Lane, Jewish programme The Shtick and Russian programme Sputnik TV.
“We have a lot of programs that have probably done 20 to 25 years on the air”
“There are people who were involved back in 1994 and are still churning out programs. We have a lot of programs that have probably done 20 to 25 years on the air: 600 700, 1000 episodes. It’s an insane involvement that we’ve had from a really big handful of producers who are still with us to this day,” Dunlop continues.
“There would be a handful of others that have done 10 years plus and another hundred or so that are with us at any given time.
“There are some real heroes of Community TV that I’ve got a deep respect for. They’ve been doing it for so long. I feel for them because it has been such a big part of their lives.”
Highlights included the Antenna Awards, Chartbusting ’80s, Reclink Community Cup, variety show About Tonight, Aunty Donna specials, Live on Bowen, Lessons with Luis and the iconic Fishcam.
“We had a quiz show that was a bit like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but it was called Hot Dog with the Lot. It was basically a food truck outside the Corner Hotel in Richmond. Punters would answer a series of multiple choice questions and as they got correct answers, they were able to get the bun, the hot dog, onion, cheese and sauce!
He adds, “Or Waleed Aly getting up on stage and doing a guitar solo in the middle of Dan Sultan covering Purple Rain, two days after Prince died. Some of those moments are really special and we were able to push them out live.”
Indeed, C31 was also a training ground for 3 Gold Logie winners, Rove McManus, Waleed Aly, Hamish & Andy, as well as the Marngrook Footy Show, Merrick & Rosso, Steven Hall, Corrine Grant, Tommy Little, Peter Helliar, Dave Thornton, Dilruk Jayasinha, Emmylou Maccarthy, Georgie Coghlan and more.
“Half the people who host the desk on The Project any given night have come from us,” Dunlop continues.
“But I think what’s what’s underreported is anybody who gets into the TV industry behind the camera at some point if they’ve come through Melbourne, has touched Community TV on their way through. There would be very few TV professionals in this state who have not either worked on a Community TV program, or guested on it at some point.
“It’s been a major part of the careers of thousands of Victorians.”
“It’s been a major part of the careers of thousands of Victorians.”
Dunlop is not optimistic about the station’s future as an online-only enterprise. There are no guarantees advertising from online will deliver the same results as broadcast.
“You can have a life on YouTube and Vimeo and god knows where else, but people won’t really start to take notice or get on board with your project, unless you’re one of the very few that can cut through the white noise of online.
“Once you have a TV show that has a timeslot that can be promoted, that has potential sponsorships associated to it, doors start opening. I think people start to realise that Community TV actually has a role to play still, to this day,” he explains.
“Community TV at the point it is about to be switched off is actually going through something of a renaissance.”
“About 10 years ago 1.5 million people, on any given month watched community TV. Now that’s probably halved. But I think that’s the case of the entire Free to Air industry. So yes, there’s been a downturn, but I would say that Community TV at the point it is about to be switched off is actually going through something of a renaissance.”
Yet despite the glum news, the channel is looking to go out in style on Tuesday.
“What I’ve loved about working here is how we’ve punched above our weight
“I don’t think the Minister expected us to be able to garner such support, and that sort of theme runs through everything we’ve done. We’ve always done more than I think should have been achievable for a station of our size.
“We are going to be Live for at least the last six hours of our broadcast with some nods to Fishcam. It incorporates the Tuesday live show that we have every week, which is Talking Fishing. ‘
“We will try to honour the the last 25 years, at least by acknowledging that we’re counting down the last few hours of our broadcast.”
UPDATED: Minister Fletcher has announced a 12 month extension for Channel 31 and Channel 44 on Q&A.