In my second year of university, some friends and I started a TV channel.
Community television was a nascent fashion at the time and we were inspired by the achievements of CAT TV in Sydney.
Our university was in the country town of Lismore in Northern NSW, an area characterised by its equal mix of cattle farmers and hippies, just a stones throw from both Nimbin and Casino. It was the first time anyone had attempted community television outside of a major city.
Community TV licenses were relatively easy to get at that time because the Australian Broadcasting Association was experimenting with allocating an unused UHF channel for this purpose. Not many people applied for them because of the expense of buying a transmitter and producing programming. Community Radio was just so much more affordable and so had grown
We managed to wheedle out a couple of small grants from the university and the local council but we raised money largely by making button badges and selling them on campus.
We obtained a license for a test broadcast which allowed us 8 days of broadcast during the year of 1992. Due to the cost of getting the equipment together we decided to use up all the 8 days in a single broadcast at the end of the year just after the semester ended. Linc TV was born.
We bought a third share in the transmitter that belonged to two other community channels. At the time there was a strange hippy guy who would drive it around the country on the roof of his Holden station wagon.
The university lent us a decrepit outdoor broadcast vehicle which we parked in the cow paddock of a kindly farmer who lived in a hill facing the town. He let us run an extension cable from his house in return for mentioning him on air with some regularity.
The programming was a motley selection of stuff we made ourselves and what we could beg and borrow from the locals and other community channels. We had the advantage of living in a very creative community so there was a fair amount of material available. I remember driving to the home of the documentary filmmaker David Bradbury, who lives near Byron Bay and him happily handing me a box of U-Matic tapes including a copy of his award-winning film Nicaragua - No Pasaran and several reels of never-seen-before outtakes.
The media faculty at the University got behind us and set assignments for students to make the evening news. We couldn’t broadcast live so they would record it each afternoon in the studio on campus then run the tapes up to our cow paddock in someone’s car.
It’s hard to imagine, in this time of multiple cable channels and the internet, how much of an impact our little channel made. But the town of Lismore, in those days, only had two channels: The ABC (Australia’s national broadcaster) and a local commercial channel. We were the third.
Our transmitter had a range of around 2kms, if I remember rightly, which only covered the very centre of the town and probably only gave us a maximum viewing population of around 3-4000. Judging by the number of conversations I heard in supermarket queues and pubs around the time, I believe there were few people within the catchment area who didn’t at least tune in out of curiosity. I also heard that people outside the transmitter’s reach were going around to friends’ houses to watch.
The hillside where our little broadcast van and transmitter were parked among quietly grazing cows had a wonderful view down over the centre of the town where it was nestled in the junction of two rivers. We set up a camera on a tripod in front of the van so we could broadcast live pictures of the view as a kind of pastoral test pattern to run between programs while we reloaded tapes into the two clunky U-matic machines.
Someone had lent us a car-phone (remember those) about the size of a small briefcase. At some point we got the idea of announcing the number on air while we were showing the live town vista and asking people to phone in if they could see their house. We got dozens of calls. One woman enthusiastically shouting ‘Can you see my husband? He’s on the roof, waving a white towel!” Indeed we could see him. And this quickly became a thing, people waving various brightly coloured household linens out their windows and phoning to get themselves name-checked on the telly.
This kind of community involvement was quite a revelation in a time
when interaction with media was mostly limited to writing letters to the
So much of this story sounds like tales from an ancient land, but all this took place less than 20 years ago. The technological changes of the present era have been so rapid that by the time it took me to complete my final year of study and travel around Europe for 6 months, all of the technical skills I may have learnt in the course of this project were utterly redundant.
I like to think about how much of the project would have been easier with today’s technology. Mobile phones, digital video and the internet did not exist. PCs, printers and even photocopiers were hard to access or expensive.
I was surprised to learn recently that Linc TV is still exists. I came across
their website and was amazed to see how little seemed to have changed in
the way they did things. They still broadcast over-the-air and apart from the existence of the website they have made no attempt to embrace the web, or
as far as I could see, use any kind of new media for broadcast or interaction with their audience.
I contacted the current organiser via email and asked him, among other things, why they were not broadcasting online. His reply was quite simply, that ‘the point of having a TV license was to broadcast TV’.
He’s quite right of course and I’ve been thinking a lot about what the relevance of a community TV channel might be today. Linc TV and other still existing channels in Australia hold on to the position that as long as TV exists, it’s important that the local community should have a role in it. This is a great argument until you consider that the rest of the world has by-passed the traditional media to find far more easily accessible, cheaper and wider reaching tools for community engagement on the web.
But it seems community TV channels are not interested in casting such a wide net. Their position seems to be that if it’s local access TV you should have to be local to access it. As if the word ‘only’ should be inserted somewhere into their slogan ‘By the community. For the community’.
But for the wider television industry, ‘access’ now is a very different kind of problem. With the proliferation of cable channels, TV can be as specialised or as global as you like. Just about any TV show can be seen anywhere in the world. What audiences want now is to be able to access things on their own terms – whenever and wherever they choose – and not be beholden the network’s schedule.
The television industry’s biggest problem now is not just that people don’t want to watch ads, but that people don’t want to wait. Once we hear there is a new series of Mad Men, we want to see it. So if it is not yet released in our region or iTunes or Netfix can’t make the episodes available until 8 days after they have been broadcast, we will turn to torrents and other illicit means.
Eventually, our needs will be served, whether it is by the current broadcast leaders or not. All content will be available globally, on-demand and probably with a choice of ad-supported and paid-for services. Perhaps television as we know it will be preserved only for live sport and other events that have value in being seen in real-time.
It is a wonderful world, our future, where everyone has access to such a wide range of content. But greater choice means greater selectiveness so when we can choose from whatever we want to watch, perhaps we will more often choose things that we know we like and one loss maybe the things we come across, just because they happened to be on when we were watching.
On the 3rd or 4th day of Linc TV’s inaugural broadcast, I went to pay my rent. While explaining to the estate agent why it was overdue, I mentioned my involvement in the project. "Wow" he said "That’s you? I was up last night watching it!” , "Yeah," chipped in one of his colleagues, "I really enjoyed that doco about the poofdahs, and the other one about the coons" (the previous evening we had broadcast a program about Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and another about Aboriginal deaths in custody.) Despite my discomfort at the bigoted language, I decided it was a good thing that they had watched the programs at all and was more than a little proud that I had played a
part in exposing them to something they would never previously have considered watching.
Kate Leury Nielsen, 2015