John Drinnan on business

John Drinnan is a Herald business writer and media commentator

Media: Secret squirrel deals becoming norm

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The TV industry shows a lack of restraint screening sleazy adult material such as Two and a Half Men during the early evening. Photo / Supplied
The TV industry shows a lack of restraint screening sleazy adult material such as Two and a Half Men during the early evening. Photo / Supplied

Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman and Communications Minister Steven Joyce would have us believe National's broadcasting policy is built on benign neglect.

But this Government is no different than others before it, with signs it is meddling in the media.

Big decisions are still being made - but in discussions between industry incumbents and behind closed doors.

Public opinion would just complicate matters.

The public had no say in the Government abandoning TVNZ's limited public service broadcaster or the demise of TVNZ7 or TVNZ's effective abandoning of Freeview.

In my opinion TVNZ7 was hobbled by a commercial state corporation that did not want to cannibalise its commercial revenue.

TVNZ7's only hope for survival is to secure payment from Sky TV under a regulated market.

Under a backroom deal - brokered by Coleman - Sky got TVNZ7 content for free and Sky got a cheap rate for Prime TV on to Freeview.

At the start of National's term there was a review looking at the future of television as it converges with telecommunications. It was quickly killed after lobbying from Sky.

TelstraClear is calling for regulation of access to content under the new world of internet TV.

Joyce has ruled out the regulation of content.

What of New Zealand on Air - the government agency that distributes millions of dollars of taxpayer cash for TV programmes and musicians?

Once the champion of public service content and risk-taking, it has become increasingly conservative and focused on subsidies to industry rather than culture.

Is it independent? Governments always appoint people they like to quangos. But the appointment of Prime Minister John Key's electorate secretary Stephen McElrea to NZ On Air - where he chooses documentaries for state funding - raises questions about NZ On Air's processes.

And then there is the strange case of the radio frequency loans. Taxpayers loaned frequencies to the radio industry under a delayed payment scheme worth $43.3 million involving one of the country's biggest media companies.

That was after MediaWorks' lobbying of Key and despite warnings from officials.

The issue is not so much about whether this Government is making bad decisions. It is that it is making decisions in secret with industry players that help some commercial interests over others.

PENNY WISE

Whatever happened to Penelope Barr? The former beauty queen was a high-profile weather woman in the early 1990s in the halcyon days of One News dominance - when blondes held sway and she was as much of a celebrity as Paul Holmes, Judy Bailey and Richard Long.

Penelope Barr-Sellers - as she is now known - popped up recently in a new role as head of growth and development at AUT University. The job encompasses public and business relations. She started in October after she and her family returned from London where she worked in public relations.

WHOOPSIES

MediaWorks is playing down a bungled message to readers of its website that confused Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden.

TV3's website, 3news.co.nz, went down on Monday afternoon when the news of Osama Bin Laden's death first broke.

People trying to access the website were told: "We are currently experiencing extremely high traffic due to the announcement that Barack Obama is dead."

TV3 publicity boss Rachel Lorimer said a website staffer made the mistake which was no reflection on 3News journalism standards. 3News also stood by its decision the same night to screen a picture of a dead Osama bin Laden, that was subsequently found to be a hoax.

"Nothing wrong with this journalism," said the publicity boss, saying 3News included a clear disclaimer that it could not be confirmed the picture was bin Laden. TVNZ probably won't want to be laughing too much after normally sure-footed reporter Melissa Stokes reported from Albany about the "tsunami" - whoops, "tornado".

SLEAZE NATION

TV bosses are pressing the Government for more say over broadcasting standards as they complain the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) is becoming more conservative and its decisions harder to predict.

Since last year this column has been charting the growing tensions between broadcasters and the regulator. TVNZ and MediaWorks have banded together for an appeal against the BSA upholding complaints over TV2's late-night show Hung and TV3's early-evening programme Home & Away.

The High Court upheld the appeal against the Hung decision. But the Home & Away decision - which said there was a breach of good taste and decency - stands.

It is now one of the benchmarks for content broadcast in general viewing hours, limiting what can be shown in the 5.30pm timeslot.

The television industry is complaining about a new conservatism in the BSA and pressing the Government to change the four-person regulator so it has up to 10 members with a degree of self-regulation from industry appointees.

The self-regulatory Advertising Standards Authority is suggested as a template for a new-look BSA.

MediaWorks company secretary Clare Bradley complained that one or two appointees to a four-person BSA can lead to a lurch of interpretations and a more conservative board.

But the chairman of the BSA - Peter Radich - rejects the notion that the authority is any more conservative or that a small board has led to a notable change of interpretation.

There had been a shaking-down period, he said. It had inevitably taken time for the parties to get to know one another better.

"I've been labelled a conservative force on the BSA - it's a perception, but what does that mean?"

Radich says his personal view is that intervention in the work of professionals should be lesser rather than greater.

And in the TV industry some see the most conservative element as Mary Shanahan, the longest-standing board member.

In my opinion, the TV industry view that they should be self-regulating is undermined by its lack of restraint showing sleazy adult material such as Two and a Half Men and Family Guy in the early evening when kids are watching.

ARCH ADVERTISER

McDonald's Restaurants is one of the country's biggest advertisers and New Zealand chief executive Mark Hawthorne says that is not going to change during tough times in the fast food industry.

Three or four years ago McDonald's was looking askance at the growth of the Subway franchise eating into market share, but Hawthorne says Subway cut back on its advertising spend and that put the franchise into a negative spiral.

But McDonald's had always kept a close focus on advertising.

Last year it spent 4 per cent of its sales revenue on advertising but this year that had increased to 4.35 per cent and the fast-food firm has about 30 per cent of the "voice" for fast food advertising on TV.

Hawthorne said TV advertising had been challenging because even though the numbers watching were getting higher, many people were using MySky and Tivo to skip through the ads.

CLOSE CALL

TVNZ says that a Close Up producer offer of cash to two clowns who featured in its coverage of the Albany tornado was for video material and not appearance money.

Producer Kate Lynch was overheard offering the pair $500.

One of the clowns appeared on One News a second night.

In theory, TV news does not pay appearance money, but as the number of news outlets expands there will be more pressure to tie down good talent and video content.

- NZ Herald

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