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Current as of 30/05/17 06:00AM NZST
Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: The death of public service television

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Sky TV has managed to strangle free public television in New Zealand. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Sky TV has managed to strangle free public television in New Zealand. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Something is very wrong in the state of New Zealand when public service broadcasting ends up behind Sky TV's paywall shut off from 50 percent of New Zealanders who can no longer watch what was once free to air.

That's what has happened to TVNZ's Heartland formerly on TVNZ 6. The channel, along with TVNZ 7 (soon to suffer a similar demise when it ceases in its current form in June next year), is part of the brave new world of digital television that arrives with the switch-off of analogue TV in 2013.

It supposedly ushers in an era that will provide much more consumer choice in TV channels, free up radio spectrum for all sorts of marvellous new telecommunications, and release a cool $230 million "digital dividend" for the government.

What do we get instead? Heartland and the Kidzone component of TVNZ 6 behind a Sky TV paywall, meaning half of New Zealand can't see it - and TVNZ 6 turned into an inane youth channel called 'U'. What happened to principles of universal access? And why should part of Rupert Murdoch's empire be making money off New Zealand taxpayer-funded programmes?

As Paul Norris tutor and former head of Christchurch Polytechnic's New Zealand Broadcasting School points out TVNZ 6 and 7 were something unique in New Zealand - free-to-air channels without advertisements, programmes not driven by the need to bring in the advertising dollar and programmes that cannot be found elsewhere.

With the notable exception of Maori Television, Norris says both TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 were providing a genuine public service: "In other words they were the last bastion of public broadcasting on New Zealand television."

Why, when there is more room on the airways than ever before, has the government decided to limit consumer choice? Because TVNZ now makes money from the exclusive carriage of these channels on Sky's platform. What's anti-democratic, anti-choice and downright unfair about the decision is that most of the programmes on Heartland are archival footage that we, the taxpayer, subsidised long ago. These programmes belong to us, are our heritage and have been cynically sold off at the viewer's expense so Sky and TVNZ can profit. And for what? So TVNZ can dish up a bland diet of ratings led listings.

The sorry state of affairs comes about because in July this year the government passed the Television New Zealand Amendment Bill. As School of English Film Theatre and Media Studies senior lecturer, Peter Thompson, at Victoria University points out, the bill strips our state-owed broadcaster of any obligation "to serve the public interest beyond returning a dividend to the Crown". Money talks and nothing else matters.

As Thompson notes, the government will have us believe that public service television is merely a "nice-to-have" and that in the current financial climate we simply can't afford it. That the current $174 million the government spends annually on public service television - largely through contestable funds provided by New Zealand on Air and Te Mangai Paho - is more than enough to meet the majority of public needs. In the brave new digitally converged world, public service media institutions are anathema. The government policy is to support "broadcasting" not "broadcasters", under market rules.

The problem, as Thompson points out, is that the rules of contestable funding - where programme makers must have a broadcaster willing to broadcast - mean much free to air content is severely limited. Key genres including quality news and current affairs, educational programming and minority interest content - even with NZ on Air funding can never compete with rating driven commercial broadcasting fare. Local content provision in primetime is commercially irrational for broadcasters who can generate much higher margins by running Embarrassing Fat Bodies or MasterChef Australia.

"Ratings may be an index of relative demand," says Thompson. "But they cannot gauge the latent demand for forms of content or services that are never made available, either because of perceived risk or because of the calculated opportunity cost of providing non-popular genres."

Which brings us back to the fundamental question. Why does the government not want to encourage educational programmes for kids, informative news and current affairs and a wider breadth of New Zealand history and culture that is not governed by ratings, advertising and profit?

Apparently because we can't afford it. But as Thompson points out yet again, this is a convenient hypocrisy. There are plenty of mechanisms whereby such content could be funded - the most obvious being a levy on Sky. If it's OK for Sky to pay TVNZ for the exclusive carriage of Heartland and Kidzone, why doesn't it pay for carrying TVNZ 1 and 2?

The canned Digital Broadcasting Review of Regulation would have examined whether Sky should pay its dues as a corporate citizen rather taking a free ride on the taxpayer's back. The means are known as must-carry-must-pay (or must-offer-must-pay) arrangements for pay-TV operators which are common in other jurisdictions. They recognise that subscription platforms benefit from the carriage of free-to-air services and require the operator to pay modest licence fees to the free-to-air channels, even if they are available on other platforms (such as Freeview).

"Had such measures been implemented," says Thompson. "Then quite apart from significantly repositioning the free-to-air sector's relation to Sky (a key reason why Sky opposed the Review of Regulation), a revenue stream sufficient to support the continuation of TVNZ 7 might have been developed."

Norris suggests other funding alternatives for public service broadcasting too. How about making an investment from the millions of dollars trumpeted as the digital dividend? Or making a small levy on the profits of commercial broadcasters above a certain level?

Thompson says the idea of a levy on commercial broadcaster revenue is based on the principle of the "polluter pays" - ensuring that the media operators whose commercial operations contribute to market failures (that educational and informative current affairs are not commercially viable) also contribute to off-setting those tendencies.

Not that there's an embarrassing fat body's chance the government will change course. You get the feeling that the more dumbed down and the more Foxified the media gets here, the more the government likes it. An uninformed public is a compliant public.

But you have to admire this government's ability to pull the wool over so many eyes. Somehow it's convinced the majority of New Zealanders of the following: that partial assets sales of public utilities to corporate interests are good; that exposing our coastline to the risks of deep sea oil drilling is good; that massive mining of our coal and lignite, despite the harm to the environment is good; and that gifting Telecom $900 million of taxpayer's money to maintain its monopoly exploitation of New Zealand telecommunications is good.

Has the government put something stupefying in the water? How else to explain why, when pursuing market solutions to everything, such obvious market failures are not just ignored, they're exacerbated.

Thanks to the era of Rogernomics we have plenty of evidence that privatising public utilities is a doomed folly - that the need for shareholder returns will always trump the public good. Think Railways, Air New Zealand and Telecom.

We also know that the market - the new god that can do no wrong - has no mechanism to deal with environmental damage. There is no economic signal to tell the fossil fuel industry to stop damaging the environment while it obliviously reaps enormous financial rewards.

And the fact that our government had to step in to provide $1.5 billion for a national fibre network because the incumbent monopoly was never going to build one shows yet another market failure by of epic proportions. To then give the same overseas owned listed monopoly $900 million to stuff it up all over again is beyond belief.

And now public service television - a must-have piece of infrastructure in every civilised society - is for the knacker's yard. God defend New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

Read more by Chris Barton

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