The guilty party is Prime Television, an affiliate of Channel Seven. They said they are closing because they cannot afford upgrades after news services move to Canberra. This seems a spurious reason given it only cost them $100,000 to upgrade their Albury studio to digital. The move is part of a growing trend to ignore public affairs interests of regional areas due to cost cutting in an 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 is making its way to country areas.
ACMA says 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 week and a minimum of 12 hours over six weeks. Local content is “material of local significance” which can relate to either “a local area, or to the licensee’s licence area.” 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 said the changeover to digital transmission brought growth opportunities but they lost $5 million a year when the Government’s Regional Equalisation Plan rebates ended. The REP was the 2000 Howard Government idea to defray half the cost of digital conversion for regional broadcasters. It was thought Australia would be fully digital by 2004 but now it won’t happen until 2013. Labor ended the rebate this year.
Prime wrote off the Orange and Wagga stations as “dinosaurs of the digital age”. But it wouldn’t have cost too much to transform ahead of the digital comet and it would have been an 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.”