NITV newsreader Natalie Ahmat.

NITV newsreader Natalie Ahmat. Photo: Marco Del Grande

It's not everyday that Australia gets a new free-to-air television station. It's even less common that the new channel is made by and for Indigenous Australians.

Yet today in the dusty red centre of Australia, and very close, appropriately, to the spectacular natural wonder that is Uluru, the switch was flicked on for Channel 34 – the National Indigenous Television network.

NITV, as it is branded, has previously only been a curio for Australian television watchers, located on Foxtel and drawing modest audience figures. Now, however, it is available to all Australians with access to free-to-air television as it joins the SBS suite of channels.

The move to SBS began last year. NITV had previously lacked stability and security in terms of funding and its ability to transmit. Knowing that the federal government was keen for it to move on to the free-to-air spectrum, SBS managing director Michael Ebeid began lobbying the government with a plan to bring it into the SBS family. SBS possesses a digital spectrum of four channels – only two of which are currently used.

“This in many ways completes SBS,” Mr Ebeid says. “Our job is tell to the stories from cultures around the world and NITV talks to the first culture of the land.”

Discussions began in earnest in August of last year and the project came to fruition when its funding – $60 million over four years – was included in the federal budget this year in May.

Mr Ebeid says the focus for the funding will purely be on programming and content as savings will be made in regards to human resources, back-end administration, finance, systems and IT as it will be able to utilise SBS's infrastructure in that regard.

“The idea is to try and put as much money as we can into content,” he said. “That is one of the good reasons of bringing it into SBS.”

The network began airing at 12pm eastern-time with a special From The Heart of Our Nation, a television event broadcast from here at Uluru hosted by veteran indigenous broadcasters Stan Grant and Rhonda Roberts. Federal ministers Jenny Macklin and Stephen Conroy were present along with channel manager Tanya Denning. There were a couple of minor technical issues, but it was for the most part an emotional, spirited presentation.

On Wednesday night, NITV will continue broadcasting from Uluru with a two-hour concert and celebrating indigenous culture and music featuring performers such as Dan Sultan, Casey Donovan, Christine Anu and Troy Casser-Daly.

After the launch's unique programming, there will be a broad focus on genres: drama, comedy, sports, music and documentary will all be part of its programming mix. News will also play a big part in the channel's culture with a nightly bulletin, NITV News, that will look at both indigenous news and wider global and national news stories through an indigenous perspective.

“We want to use and work with the indigenous independent producers who are tapped into local stories and have access to communities and the traditional owners who can capture and record those stories,” Mr Ebeid said.

He added that although the channel is first and foremost for indigenous Australians – 80 per cent of its staff is indigenous – he believes it will play a further role for the wider Australian population.

“It gives us an opportunity to get a view of that and understand our first people more than we ever have before,” he said. “We think that this will play an important part in the reconciliation of this country.”

Andrew Murfett travelled to Uluru courtesy of SBS