Shake-up … Move It Mob Style is a cultural beacon as well as getting viewers up and moving.The launch of a new free-to-air channel isn’t the novelty it used to be.
During the past three years, the familiar handful of free-to-air channels has mushroomed, with each of the national networks now offering a primary channel and at least a couple of digital off-shoots.
But even in this rapidly evolving TV landscape, the arrival of NITV is a historic event.
We might now have One, GO! and 7Mate, along with dedicated children’s and news channels on the ABC, but there’s not been anything resembling National Indigenous Television on free-to-air.
NITV is designed by and for indigenous communities, but it also aims to attract a broad national audience with a distinctive mix of news, sport, children’s and light- entertainment programs.
From noon on December 12, it will begin broadcasting from Uluru on SBS Four with From the Heart of Our Nation, a two-hour special hosted by Stan Grant and Rhoda Roberts. A special edition of SBS’s indigenous-affairs program, Living Black, will follow, along with news and children’s programs. At 8pm comes a celebration concert hosted by Ernie Dingo and featuring some of the country’s best-known indigenous talents – Christine Anu, Archie Roach, Dan Sultan, Troy Cassar-Daley – with the iconic rock as its backdrop.
The launch day, with its big bash in the Northern Territory, is intended as a loud and proud announcement of NITV’s arrival, from a site with significance to a range of indigenous communities. It’s also intended as a subtler statement that, even though NITV’s base is in Sydney, its heartland lies in rural and regional Australia.
”Other channels have switched on quietly,” says NITV’s 36-year-old channel manager, Tanya Denning, who heads a young team of about 40 people, 80 per cent of them Aboriginal or from the Torres Strait Islands.
”We wanted to start with a passion and energy that we want to continue with, and we picked a remote location in order to work with the production sector there. While there are channels switching on all the time, this has been decades in the making and it’s something that we don’t ever want to forget.”
After years of agitation for an indigenous channel, NITV’s origins date back to a 2005 Redfern summit. Following that meeting of community leaders, NITV started its life with a $48.5 million federal government grant, essentially as a project to determine what the station could be and if there was an audience for it.
From 2007, broadcasting from Alice Springs, it began to beam out on subscription television, where, Denning observes, many of its potential viewers couldn’t afford to access it.
Among the station’s first commissions were The Barefoot Rugby League Show and The Marngrook Footy Show, with the latter then moving to ABC2. To the dismay of AFL fans and others, it was recently axed.
NITV’s recent absorption into SBS affords the channel a measure of security that it’s not enjoyed before. In the last federal budget, SBS received an unprecedented one-off boost of $158 million from the government, with $60 million earmarked to fund NITV for four years. At this stage, it looks to be a happy marriage.
”It is a really good fit,” the chief executive and managing director of SBS, Michael Ebeid, says. ”NITV is a channel that will showcase a lot about culture and SBS is all about showcasing the world’s cultures. For us not to be showcasing the first culture of this land was something that was missing.”
At one level, a budget of $15 million a year might seem generous, and, indeed, for NITV, given its recent history, it’s enormously significant as it ensures the station’s survival for four years. That’s a level of security it hasn’t previously enjoyed in a short life shaped by year-to-year funding and the omnipresent threat of being shut down.
But, as Denning points out, $15 million could be the budget for a single network drama series and here it has to stretch to cover a channel that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
NITV is also aiming to be a dynamic and distinctive channel that reflects indigenous culture in all its richness and diversity, achieves regional relevance, engages a national audience, and isn’t stuffed with cheap imports and reruns.
Ebeid notes: ”Funding is going to be a challenge because this channel can’t just buy cheap content from the UK or America: it’s got to make its content here in Australia and that’s expensive. To make content can be 10 to 20 times more expensive than buying it.”
Ebeid identifies three key elements in NITV’s aims: ”To share indigenous culture and stories with broader Australia; for indigenous stories and culture to be shared with indigenous people, as it’s incredibly important for indigenous people to see themselves reflected on mainstream television; and to harness and protect indigenous stories for future generations.”
Initially, NITV’s schedule will feature news, children’s and sports programs, movies and light entertainment. In that, it differs from the ABC’s indigenous unit.
The head of the ABC unit, Sally Riley, explains that her team’s focus is ”drama series, narrative comedy, comedy and documentary”.
”We want high-end, high-impact event drama and documentaries, because that’s the stuff that makes an impact with audiences and gets the word out there,” she says.
Riley’s unit is responsible for productions such as Redfern Now, which took almost two years from development through to making its screen debut. ”At the moment, I don’t see them as competition because I think we are doing very different things,” Riley says.
”I think that they are doing a great job. The news from an indigenous perspective is really important.”
Denning and Riley both point to the importance of developing skills in the indigenous production sector, with Riley noting, ”It’s a really fantastic time to be an indigenous filmmaker or a program-maker because there are funding opportunities available and there’s a lot of production happening. It’s probably the best time we’ve seen because the opportunities are there.”
As for NITV and its future, Denning says, ”We’ve been an experimental channel. Now we want to show off what makes us so unique: to celebrate our languages, our sense of humour.
”We are a proud people and we have this knowledge of how to survive in different worlds, and we want to show off the diversity of who we are.
”We dreamed big in the first place with NITV: there are a lot of people that didn’t think we’d get to this point and we persevered. There’s a lot of learning yet to be done, but we’re passionate and we’ll keep going with it.”
NITV will be available from 12pm on December 12 on channel 34 and Foxtel channel 180.Choice cuts
A handful of NITV highlights, recommended by channel manager Tanya Denning
1. NITV News: If you want to know what’s going on in the world of indigenous affairs, every day there’s something that reflects our communities. Hosted by Natalie Ahmat (cover).
2. Barefoot Sports: Covers our sporting elites as well as grassroots athletes. There’s a lot of talent beyond the football world and this show showcases everything from go-karting and boxing to ice skating.
3. Waabiny Time: I’d encourage people to switch on our children’s programs, and this is a program that a lot of NITV viewers already know and love.
4. Indigenous Insights: A really interesting world-news program.
5. Fusion: Hosted by previous Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan and one of the great array of music programs.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.