Imparja: its disappearing purpose


The endless question of Aboriginal broadcast media in Central Australia: Is there a plan? In its fourth decade Imparja Television is downgraded to a relay station of a national network with hardly any local input. Its founder, CAAMA, is frantically running a fire sale (not much luck with buyers so far) to cover its mountain of debt. Imparja boss ALISTAIR FEEHAN (pictured) here responds to issues (in italics) put to him by the Alice Springs News. He sets some facts straight but struggles to make sense of what’s directed from “up high” – starting with news reporting which gives media their core purpose. Truly local news and content has disappeared from Imparja’s offerings, yet we’re in the place where stories are currency, and the living lore goes back further than anywhere else in the world. 

Imparja now runs Darwin Nine Network news as a local service to cover the Northern Territory, although it only represents a smaller percentage of the total Imparja audience when including VAST broadcast. VAST – Viewer Access Satellite Television – provides digital television and radio services to viewers in remote areas of Australia.

We are contracted by Government to run Brisbane News for Queensland and NT and Sydney News for NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and SA.

Most of the transmission is not from Alice Springs.

The reality is that in 2010 when digital transmission started in Central Australia, Imparja was contracted by the Government to provide very specific services.

This was under the Regional Equalisation Scheme which the then Minister, Steven Conroy, interpreted to be, that no matter where you were in Australia you should have access to the same free to air Broadcast options.

In the case of Imparja that meant an extra two channels, and a joint venture with Southern Cross Broadcasting for the Network 10 services. Then the Government decided to enforce a North, that meant North Queensland and NT, and South signal, for NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and SA, all of which are areas into which Imparja broadcasts.

At the same time the Government made Imparja the VAST digital in fill option for the Nine signal for all markets East of the WA Border.

As a matter of record we argued against this as the economics would never work based on the then revenues and we are of the view that we would see a decline in revenues going forward, as advertisers focused on metropolitan and high population based regional markets.

In the case of Imparja we went from one channel to an effective five channels, all of which required content which had to be purchased from 9 Network, all of which had to be sent to Sydney to be delivered by satellite

Also because of media laws we had to take 50% ownership of the Network 10 signal in our footprint with the same number of channels, same costs and minimal revenue. We now had to provide services to an extra 500,000 people who could no longer receive terrestrial services in their homes.

The cost impost was extraordinary and despite some early guarantees from the Government, the reality was the model was, and is still flawed and is not commercially sustainable in its current form.

Within three years we had to shut down the local news service as we could no longer afford to produce it.

We also had to move all of our playout from Alice Springs to NSW as the rate of change and life of transmission equipment was such that we could not afford to keep pace with the rapid technology change.

Media Hub is a joint venture between the ABC and Win Television and currently delivers some 250 plus channels nationally. 

We also lost our ability to offer careers to Indigenous applicants who wished to enter the television medium, and that was despite numerous approaches to Government for assistance to enable us to retain the Alice Springs broadcast operations.

Should we go back to the beginning? The current system isn’t working. Hands up all those who think there should be a new approach?

From a content production side you need only do the numbers to realise that the objective of 20% was never attainable or financially viable to a commercial broadcaster. Just looking at prime time 6pm – 12am. Six hours by seven nights equals 42 hours per week. 20% = 8.4 hours.  

Production costs for quality production is around $400,000 per hour. Let’s for the sake of this exercise say we can average content at $100,000 per hour which equates to $840,000 per week or $43.6 million per year.  

There has never been that amount of money spent on Indigenous content. The other issue is once you have it, who wants to advertise in it and who will watch it?

Look at NITV which on a good night may get 0.5% of viewers in any quarter-hour. So if we have seven million people watching free to air around the country, NITV will peak at 35,000 viewers. It is not a commercial proposition without substantial ongoing Government financial support.

Why should Imparja be registered with ASIC instead of ORIC?

Imparja is a Proprietary Company, Limited By Shares, and regulated by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC).  This was logical given the proposed ownership of Imparja in 1987, and the fact that it operated as a commercial business, thus requiring appointed directors to act in the best interests of the company. The CATSI Act and Charities and Not for Profit Commission were not introduced until 2007 and 2013 respectively. Imparja reports to the Charities Commission and to ASIC annually.

This means it does not have to register with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), where most Aboriginal corporations are listed.

We are a not for profit, commercial broadcaster who puts between $2.5m and $3.5m back into the community every year. A lot of this is done by way of sponsorship and support.

We don’t advertise the fact but we work hard to support the community.  We meet all the corporation laws and ACNC requirements and have no issue as a mainstream business. No disrespect to ORIC but we live and survive in the mainstream, and do not receive public funds to operate, which is why indigenous corporations are under ORIC.

Why because of ownership should we be placed in a unique position compared to rest of Industry?

That is very handy: ASIC companies have a very low level of public disclosure while the ORIC firms are required to be exceedingly transparent. The immensely wealthy Centrecorp, in which the Central Land Council is the largest shareholder, is also very aware of the opportunities for keeping the public, and its own members, in the dark under the ASIC regime.

Imparja is also a Registered Charity.  We are required to report to ACNC and would not be able to remain as a Not For Profit if we did not satisfy their statutory regulation. We also hold Deductible Gift Recipient status with the ATO; however, we have never pursued philanthropic donations to support the business.


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