I grew up on Kanalu country in central Queensland on a railway reserve on the outskirts of the mining town Blackwater, surrounded by storytellers. My grandfather, who was called Munjalung by his Gunggari elders, would always take us kids out bush, telling us the longest tales about Bulku and Nughi, the strong and fearless warriors.
Of course, I didn’t think I was learning culture; I remember thinking my Pa’s stories were like a special television adventure series as good as, if not better than, Monkey Magic or Cities of Gold.
As an 80s kid, television was the powerful message box that provided a compass to the world, informing you about it and your place in it. But the lack of Indigenous faces and stories often made me feel like a stranger in my own home.
Turning the TV off and escaping into my grandfather’s stories was done easily enough but navigating outside the safety of home and into the Australia that had opinions shaped by that box was another story.
Increased support and funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled media was a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. At that time, the portrayal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories in the mainstream media was seen as a contributing factor to the stereotypes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the social context in which they lived.
As a small-town kid surrounded by coalmines and cattle stations, I dreamed of becoming a journalist and changing the stereotype. I never imagined I would become a television executive in a position to help change the national narrative through the storytelling of the world’s oldest culture.
When the chance to be a part of the team to help create NITV came up, I jumped at the opportunity.
When NITV launched in 2007, there were mixed expectations. We had ambition beyond our means, an uncertain funding future, and limited access into Australian homes. No one knew what would come from the channel, let alone whether anyone would watch it.
The channel was launched in the same year that the federal government rolled out the Northern Territory Intervention. At that time there was limited programming on Australian TV focused on our stories. People like Stan Grant, Ernie Dingo and Deborah Mailman were rare examples of breakout successes.
But our community had big dreams for NITV – both of seeing our stories celebrated on screen at a grand scale, to more tongue-in-cheek aspirations. The likes of Ursula Yovich, Aaron Fa’aoso, Luke Carroll and Karla Grant said they wanted dating shows, a black footy show, a black version of Home and Away, a black Wiggles and a personal news service. The now Sydney Festival director, Wesley Enoch, joked: “I want an Aboriginal Big Brother, but instead of voting people out, they get voted in, until the government comes in and shuts us down.”
When NITV first “beamed to the bush” during NAIDOC Week on Black Friday, 13 July 2007, it marked the beginning of a new era for Indigenous television.
The diversity our Indigenous screen sector had been trying to create for Australian audiences for decades had already started internationally.
Shonda Rhimes, the African-American creator of US medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, once spoke about the importance of normalising – not simply diversifying – the kinds of people we see on television and what they do. She said: “The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because perhaps then they will learn from them. Perhaps then they will not isolate them. Marginalise them. Erase them. Perhaps they will even come to recognise themselves in them. Perhaps they will even learn to love them.”
Today at NITV, we are creating ground-breaking children’s programming achieving critical acclaim. We have a newsroom of Indigenous journalists delivering trusted and respected coverage of issues that matter to our communities, and holding power to account. I love that blackfellas are also behind the scenes, producing the content, driving the innovation and, importantly, making the decisions.
Many leading industry practitioners and presenters got their break, flexed their creative muscles and ventured into new program genres because of NITV. The rest of the industry took notice as our marketplace value shifted, and audiences loved – and demanded – more Indigenous stories and talent.
Today deadly blackfellas are on mainstream TV any night of the week, our journalists and filmmakers are regularly recognised with industry awards, and some of the highest rating programs on Australian television are Indigenous-made. Australians wake up each morning to watch the Gamilaroi journalist, Brooke Boney – who got her start at NITV – on national commercial breakfast television.
But just a few years after its launch, NITV was at a crossroads. Its future was uncertain. Staff morale was at a low. A federal government review led by Neville Stevens considered the future of Indigenous broadcasting and media in Australia, and the place of a dedicated Indigenous channel.
In 2012, an SBS lifeline resuscitated it, and NITV launched free-to-air and to all Australians for the first time, and gave the channel space to grow and evolve. Today, we are a strong, proud and loud voice for Indigenous people, and a social change agent dedicated to having a positive impact for all Australia.
2020 is our 13th year and we now have a generation of young Australians who have grown up connecting with Indigenous people and cultures, and critically, our young ones are seeing themselves included positively in a way their parents never experienced.
I recently had coffee with one of our interns from Wollongong University who told me he remembers when NITV started, that he would race home from school as a kid to watch our children’s shows. Now he is paving a career inspired by the filmmaker Warwick Thornton.
To this young generation, NITV is the norm and our coming of age has enabled more Indigenous young people to see what they could be – and, importantly, to be inspired and loved by a world that now includes them.
• Tanya Denning-Orman is a Birri and Guugu Yimidhirr woman from north Queensland
• NITV’s #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe programming is running this week, including a live broadcast of The Vigil in Sydney on Friday night and the Sunrise Ceremony on 26 January (simulcast on SBS and SBS On Demand)