Prime Television beancounters lose faith in regional Australia

In the same week as 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 towns. The three-year $2 million Evocities campaign which kicks off next month was created by Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga, to promote life in regional NSW. But Orange and Wagga, have just lost one of their main channels of information with the local news studio shutting down to avoid the cost of digital conversion.

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.
The two 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, which expanded choice to regional viewers in the eastern states. Local services were reduced to a half-hourly news bulletin. Big players now have an interest in Prime. Seven’s owner Kerry Stokes paid $20m in 2009 to take a 11.4 percent stake while Lachlan Murdoch’s Illyria bought 8.9 percent last year. These men don’t care about local content rules.In March Prime announced services from Orange and Wagga would be replaced by a Canberra bulletin in July. Reporters will still be based in each local area but least one full-time position will disappear from each centre. As Talking Television says, Prime’s move will mark the end of local television production as rival operators such as NBN, WIN and Southern Cross Ten already centralising facilities for local news.

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.”

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