Paul Norris: Sky could save public service TV

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Today's digital wonderland provides much viewing choice but could also spell the end of quality public service television. Photo / Thinkstock
Today's digital wonderland provides much viewing choice but could also spell the end of quality public service television. Photo / Thinkstock

Could Igloo provide a shelter for public broadcasting? Paul Norris explains.

What do viewers want from the digital wonderland? Research suggests an answer - choice, convenience and control. Two recent developments apparently offer more choice at least.

The first is Igloo, a joint venture between Sky and TVNZ. It is a form of Sky-lite, in that it will provide a number of pay channels, together with all the free-to-air channels. At $25 a month it is much cheaper than other Sky packages.

But the interesting element of Igloo is that it will offer a range of programmes on demand, and some sports events, as pay-per-view, delivered over the internet. This is certainly a step towards viewer control and the vision of the me-channel where viewers assemble their own viewing schedule.

Then there is a new channel to be launched on Freeview, aptly named Choice TV, offering all kinds of lifestyle and entertainment programmes, mostly from overseas. Essentially this is a pay channel in design, but available free and funded by advertising.

But does all this really amount to an extension of viewer choice, or is it essentially more of the same? There are no new channels on Igloo, and most of the pay-per-view content will have been screened elsewhere. As for Choice TV, do we need more of the endless fare on food, travel, health and homes and gardens, especially programmes deemed commercial enough to attract the advertising dollar?

What is missing from the mix are the programmes that are not driven by ratings or advertisers, programmes aimed at satisfying social or cultural needs, often derided under the label of public broadcasting. Programmes such as those about to be lost when TVNZ 7 closes down in a few months. Or the programmes for minorities sheltering on TV One on Sunday mornings that would almost certainly be casualties if the broadcasters get their way and are allowed to advertise on Sunday mornings. For viewers to exercise real choice, these sorts of programmes must be found somewhere.

Surely space could be found for such programmes on Choice TV, even in off-peak time. But the problem is not the schedule but the money. Who will fund such programmes? The obvious answer is NZ On Air which has a statutory obligation to fund programmes for minorities and which does indeed fund those on TV One on Sunday mornings.

But the agency is seemingly unwilling to consider applications for funding for programmes like Media 7, Back Benches or The Court Report, soon to be displaced from TVNZ 7, unless a mainstream broadcaster agreed to screen them. NZ On Air is obliged to consider the likely size of the audience - a channel like Choice TV would be considered to reach too small an audience. So let us return to Igloo. There would be nothing to stop shareholders Sky and TVNZ setting up their own form of public service channel to include in the Igloo offering. It could include a range of public broadcasting programmes from overseas, together with the New Zealand programmes seeking a home. As part of Igloo, Sky would effectively provide the costs of transmission, promotion and marketing for such a channel. TVNZ could contribute news. Again, the missing ingredient is the funding for the local programming.

How much money might be needed? Let us assume as little as $10 million per year. A paltry sum in the grand scheme of government budgets, but the Government has made it clear that in these straitened times it will put no more money into broadcasting.

Among the various ideas for new money, the most realistic would seem to be taking a tiny sliver of the millions of dollars soon to pour into the government coffers from the digital dividend. That is the money raised from the sale of the analogue frequencies returned to government when broadcasters transition to digital in the coming months.

Why should this idea interest Sky, the dominant player in the media landscape of New Zealand? It will be defending its position at a conference run by the Commerce Commission this week (www.futurebroadband.co.nz), a conference ostensibly about what barriers there might be to the uptake of ultra-fast broadband.

Given most consumers will want to use ultra-fast broadband for downloading all kinds of video content one such barrier the Commission is interested in is whether there will be genuine competition in the provision of such content, or whether one or two parties have deals that effectively control access.

A preliminary report from the Commission concluded the emergence of new services over the next few years will depend on parties' ability to access premium content. The Commission observes that "most of the rights to this content are held by a small number of content rights holders." Foremost among such rights holders is Sky which is in a strong position when bidding for overseas programmes, by virtue of owning a pay and a free-to-air network (Prime).

Sky has always been politically adroit in staving off attempts to regulate or place constraints around its operations. It may see it in its interest to offer a semi-public service channel on Igloo as a gesture that might both appease the campaigners for a public service channel and those calling for regulation. Such a channel could start on Igloo, for which viewers must pay, but move later to Freeview. There is just the small matter of that $10 million. Ideas welcome.

Former TVNZ news and current affairs chief Paul Norris is on the staff of the NZ Broadcasting School at the Christchurch Polytechnic and co-wrote a recently completed evaluative study of NZ On Air 1989-2011.

- NZ Herald

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