For a television show to clock up 10 years on air is no mean feat. For an indigenous current affairs program plagued by budget cuts, network management shuffles and a prevailing misconception that viewers aren’t all that interested, a decade on air is cause for celebration.
As SBS’s Living Black celebrates its milestone with a prime-time slot on indigenous network NITV, its face and founder, Karla Grant, reflects on a decade of stories that would otherwise have remained untold.
”It’s been quite a journey,” Grant says from the SBS studios in Sydney. ”When we started, there was no program like ours on television, so we were trying to cover everything – news, art, sport, music, everything under the sun to do with indigenous people and indigenous life and issues. We started doing mini-documentaries and over the years we’ve evolved into a harder-edged current affairs program.”
The 2004 move from SBS’s now-defunct local productions department to news and current affairs was the beginning of a new era for Living Black, and saved it from the axe.
”I really had to fight for the survival of the show,” Grant says. ”I entered into talks with the then head of news and current affairs at SBS, Phil Martin, and I’m forever grateful to him for getting behind me.”
Adopting video-journalism at a time when the only other Australian current affairs show to do so was Dateline, Living Black reporters were able to work within budget restraints and tread softly in media-shy communities.
”We’ve built up a pretty good reputation over the past 10 years,” she says. ”People know we’re not going to just breeze in and breeze out and have no respect. That’s been part of the problem in the past and it still exists. A lot of commercial stations and people from print go into remote communities and they leave a sour taste.”
With family members spread across the Northern Territory and the Tiwi Islands, Grant is welcomed into communities that are often closed to other reporters. Of course, with such privilege comes responsibility.
”I love getting out on location and meeting people at the grassroots,” she says. ”You learn so much and you meet some really lovely people … The show has an important role to play in our society in creating an awareness and understanding of indigenous issues and culture, especially as we head towards constitutional recognition.”
Grant wishes more Australians could see for themselves the plight of Aboriginal people in remote areas.
”When I visit a community and I see 20 people living in a house, I think, ‘What on earth is going on?’ All this money is put into indigenous housing yet we’re seeing people living in overcrowded situations that breed arguments, violence and drinking.
”Then there’s no work in the town, so there’s no employment or education opportunities for these people. It’s a vicious cycle, and that makes me angry. People shouldn’t be living like that in this day and age.”
That it has taken until 2012 for Australians to have a free-to-air indigenous TV network is a matter that still confounds Grant.
”There hasn’t been that commitment from governments in the past to fund a channel like NITV,” she says. ”You don’t see a lot of indigenous stories on mainstream networks because programmers think they don’t rate. There’s been a hesitation to take a chance, but in fact people are interested in indigenous stories – they want to know more.”
Living Black returns on Tuesday, March 12, at 7.30pm on NITV, and is repeated on SBS One at 2.30pm on Fridays and 4.30pm on Sundays.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.