Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Prime Television beancounters lose faith in regional Australia

In the same week as the smaller New South Wales cities launched a campaign to lure Sydneysiders out of the Big Smoke, one of the big television stations has kicked the regions in the teeth by closing studios in two of its major towns. The three-year $2 million Evocities campaign which kicks off next month was created by the cities of Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga, with the aim of promoting life in regional NSW. But two of those towns, Orange and Wagga, have just lost one of their main channels of information with the local news studio shutting down facilities to avoid the cost of digital conversion.

The guilty party is Prime Television, which is an affiliate of Channel Seven. They said the closure is happening because they cannot afford any upgrades after the News services move to Canberra. This seems like a spurious reason given that it only cost them $100,000 to upgrade their Albury studio to digital. The move is part of a growing trend to ignore the public affairs interests of regional areas in favour of cost cutting to meet bottom lines in an increasingly aggressive media marketplace. Prime’s studio facility in Tamworth which produces two news bulletins for North West and North Coast will also close in 2011. Little of the $240m bribe (disguised as a “rebate”) Stephen Conroy handed the industry in February seems to be making its way to country areas.

The two closing stations have almost 50 years of association with their towns. The Orange-based station is the former base of CBN8 which began in 1962 as one of the first regional stations in NSW. The Wagga studio is the former regional station RVN2 which began broadcasting two years later. RVN and CBN produced hours of local programming including quiz shows, children's programs and news until satellite and microwave links made networking possible in the early 1970s. Both were incorporated into the Prime Television network in the 1980s in the lead-up to aggregation, the process used to expand choice to regional viewers in the eastern states. Local services were reduced to a half-hourly news bulletin. Some of the big players now have an interest in Prime. Seven’s owner Kerry Stokes paid $20m in 2009 to take a 11.4 percent stake which Lachlan Murdoch’s Illyria also bought 8.9 percent last year. These men do not give a flying fig about local content rules and care only for the bottom line.

In March Prime announced services originating from Orange and Wagga would end in July to be replaced by a Canberra bulletin. Reporters will still be based in each local area but the half-hour bulletins will be compiled from the national capital. At least one full-time position will disappear from each centre. As Talking Television points out, Prime’s move will effectively mark the end of local television production as rival operators such as NBN, WIN and Southern Cross Ten already have centralised facilities for the provision of local news.

According to ACMA, new rules were introduced in January 2008 to cover local content on regional commercial television broadcasters. The licence requires broadcasters to show at least 1.5 hours of local content in any given week and a minimum of 12 hours over six weeks. Local content is defined as “material of local significance” which can relate to either “a local area, or to the licensee’s licence area.” There seems little doubt licensees will cling to the latter definition as they strip local towns of their ability to produce news.

According to its latest annual report, Prime made a profit of $175 million in the year 2008-2009. The document noted that while the changeover to digital transmission brings new growth opportunities they lost $5 million a year when the Government’s Regional Equalisation Plan rebates ended. The REP was the 2000 brainchild of the Howard Government to defray half the cost of digital conversion for the regional broadcasters. At the time it was thought Australia would be fully digital by 2004 but now it won’t happen until 2013. But Labor ended the rebate this year.

These are tough times for television. Prime wrote off the Orange and Wagga stations as “dinosaurs of the digital age”. But it wouldn’t have cost too much to transform them to survive the digital comet and it would have been a great act of faith in regional Australia. Sky News boss Angelos Frangopoulos, who cut his teeth at Prime in Orange, predicted what will happen in their absence. "The reality is that era of proper locally produced regional television pretty much ended a long time ago," he said."It's important that regional TV doesn't perpetuate the mistakes made by regional radio stations and remove so much localism that it has just become a network feed with 1800 numbers and weather inserts attached."

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