Dan Sultan will appear on NITV. Photo: Marco Del Grande
THE launch of a new free-to-air (FTA) channel is not the novelty it used to be. During the past three years, the familiar handful of FTAs has mushroomed, with each of the national networks offering a primary channel and at least a couple of digital offshoots.
But even in this rapidly evolving TV landscape, the arrival of NITV is a historic event. We might now have GO! and One and 7mate, along with dedicated children's and news channels on the ABC, but there has not been anything resembling the national indigenous channel 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.
NITV newsreader Natalie Ahmat. Photo: Marco Del Grande
It began broadcasting at noon on December 12 from Uluru on SBS4 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, followed, along with news and children's programs.
At 7.30pm came 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, was intended as a loud and proud announcement of NITV's arrival, from a site with significance to a range of indigenous communities. It was also intended as a subtler statement that, even though NITV's base is in Sydney, its heartland lies beyond that 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, 80 per cent of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. ''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 dates from a 2005 Redfern summit of community leaders. It 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 TV where, Denning observes, many potential viewers couldn't afford to access it. Among the station's first commissions were The Barefoot Rugby League Show and Marngrook Footy Show, with the latter then moving to ABC2. To the dismay of many, it was recently axed.
NITV's recent absorption into SBS affords the channel a measure of security it has not enjoyed before. In the latest federal budget, SBS received an unprecedented one-off boost of $158 million, 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,'' says SBS' chief executive and managing director, Michael Ebeid. ''NITV … 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 enjoyed in a short life shaped by year-to-year funding and the omnipresent threat of shutdown.
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. ''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,'' Ebeid says. ''To make content can be 10 to 20 times more expensive than buying it.''
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. Its head, 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.''
Riley's unit is responsible for productions such as Redfern Now, which took almost two years from development through to screen debut.
''At the moment, I don't see [NITV] 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,'' she says.
As for NITV and its future, Denning says it has 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 dreamt 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 noon on December 12 on Channel 34 and Foxtel channel 180.