‘Our industry is a gift’: NITV’s Tanya Denning-Orman reflects on 10 years at SBS

SBS director of Indigenous Content Tanya Denning-Orman.

When the time came to choose a location for NITV’s free-to-air launch in December 2012, there was only ever one option, according to SBS director of Indigenous content Tanya Denning-Orman.

The then-channel manager said Uluru stood out as the obvious destination to debut a national, free, 24-hour channel for stories made and told by Indigenous communities.

“That’s the heartland of First Nations media,” she said.

“Central Australia is where we first started doing pirate television; when we couldn’t have access, we just did it anyway, so we wanted to give homage back then.

“Also, a lot of the songlines of First Nations people have a connection to that region as well.”

NITV will return to broadcast from Uluru today, with Whadjuk Noongar woman Narelda Jacobs hosting From the Heart of Our Nation, A Celebration, a live event featuring performances from Christine Anu, Casey Donovan, Troy Cassar-Daley, Electric Fields, and Shane Howard.

The celebration bookends a decade in which the channel has grown to house an array of genres within its programming, while steadily building its news and current affairs coverage.

Recognition has come in the form of Logies for Most Outstanding Children’s Program for Little J and Big Cuz in 2018 and Most Outstanding Factual or Documentary Program this year with Dean Gibson’s Incarceration Nation, as well as a 2022 Walkley for Outstanding Coverage of Indigenous Affairs, which went to Living Black team. The station has also helped launch the career of prominent media personalities, such as ABC presenter Tony Armstrong and Today Show entertainment host Brooke Boney.

‘Little J and Big Cuz’

It’s far cry from when inaugural CEO Patricia Turner began creating the channel on the back verandah of her Alice Springs at the end of 2006, having been contacted by director Rachel Perkins about setting up a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander television station.

Perkins was part of a group of Aboriginal media professionals that had taken part in an initial summit held in Redfern in 2005, which was followed by wider effort from practitioners across the country, and a subsequent Federal Government grant of of $48.5 million over 4 years.

Denning-Orman came aboard as the commissioning editor for the east coast in May 2007, less than three months before the NITV was scheduled to launch as part of the year’s NAIDOC Week celebration.

With limited time to build up relationships with producers and directors, and growing anticipation from the audience, she said the process required a lot of “learning on the run”.

“From the get-go, two out of three key creators had to be First Nations and up until that point, the most consistent delivery of First Nations-made content was the Message Stick on the ABC or Icam and Living Black on SBS,” she said.

“We didn’t have the children’s or drama producers and directors the same way as the rest of Australia, so we were all working the whole time.

“The early phase was very exciting but there were also a lot of expectations on our shoulders; our audience expected us to be ABC or SBS immediately… so we had to say, ‘Have patience and work with us, along with the sector’.”

After officially launching at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum on July 13, 2007, NITV went to air on Foxtel, Austar, and Optus before the end of the year. It would go on to broadcast commissions such as The Marn Grook Footy Show, as well as a mix of sporting events and music festivals, some of which had to be repeated to fill up the schedule.

In 2011, the Federal Government announced further funding of $15.2 million for 12 months following the release of the results of a government review into the Indigenous Broadcasting and Media Sector.

The government also requested NITV hold preliminary talks with SBS about a potential partnership.

Denning-Orman said coming under SBS was a “game changer” for station, noting how it had “always hurt a bit” that NITV wasn’t free to access in the communities it served prior.

“We had to really work hard for the Federal Government to see what we are doing and luckily enough, the more we’ve stayed on the air, the louder our case has been in Canberra,” she said.

“[At the time], the world was changing and interest in First Nations content was changing as well, which meant commercial players were seeing the interest in our content, but we’ve had to fight, push, and be consistent on all levels.

“It could have gone any which way, in terms of what team we had at SBS and our core purpose. As soon as we moved in, we adjusted our code, appointed Dot West as a First Nations director to the SBS board, and were able to stay true to who we were while working under the SBS model.”

The channel has further cemented its offering across the past two years via initiatives such as the Curious Australia documentary program with SBS and the No Ordinary Black short film showcase.

‘True Colours’.

From a commissioning perspective, highlights have included Northern Territory-set children’s series Barrumbi Kids and its first scripted co-commission with SBS, Bunya Productions’ True Colours, also filmed in the NT. NITV’s 2022 slate also featured documentary series Our Law, which was announced alongside fellow factual commission Larapinta last year.

Outside of its scripted and documentary line-ups, the station has sought to bring greater investment from agencies and brands to Indigenous media platforms, teaming up with SBS for the Beyond 3% campaign, which aims to address the disparity between the percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s population (3.3) and that of advertising invested in media to reach these audiences (0.3).

Reflecting on NITV’s journey up until 2022, Denning-Orman said the fact they had managed “to do so much with so little” bodes well for the future.

“We didn’t have an audience gifted to us and we’ve managed to increase our audience in a declining market, even though we are a small player,” she said.

“Even though my job has been challenging and has layers of complexity with politics and community, it’s so exciting to have that desire.

“Our industry is a gift and I feel really empowered to be part of it in the way that I am.”

From the Heart of Our Nation, A Celebration will screen from 7.30pm on NITV and SBS.