John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

NZ On Air chief has commercial vision

Worthy shows all very well but popular programmes such as The GC deserve taxpayer support too.

Miriam Dean wants the board of NZ On Air to consider what the world will look like in the future.  Photo / Richard Robinson
Miriam Dean wants the board of NZ On Air to consider what the world will look like in the future. Photo / Richard Robinson

Diplomacy is a part of Miriam Dean's skill set but there is a steely side to the highly regarded lawyer, litigator and chairwoman of New Zealand On Air.

Dean stood out when she was appointed to NZ On Air eight months ago - the first woman in the role and the first not to come from the public sector.

Two of her predecessors - founding chairman Merwyn Norrish and Neil Walter - had headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Another former chairman, broadcaster David Beatson, said Dean was treading carefully but had made a good move in governance.

Beatson, like other critics of NZ On Air's focus, said it had to address the funding of commercial content.

Dean said she was a bit shocked at her first meeting.

"I was handed 2500 pages of funding applications and the following month it was 3200 pages. As a lawyer I'd never been given more than 200 pages of briefing notes," she said.

"The board had started to get really involved in the nitty gritty, doing the work of management."

Changes implemented in October will lead to TV projects of less than $1 million and radio projects under $300,000 approved with less involvement from the politically appointed board and an end to its special oversight of documentary series.

NZ On Air's role in funding local content for TV, radio, music and increasingly digital has gone from being a foundation stone for Kiwi culture to a crutch for the commercial TV industry.

"Next year I would like the board to sit back and think about what the world will look like in the future," she said.

Dean is intelligent and inquiring but she is new to the media world and is being schooled by industry players on how it works.

She was told about the edict that broadcasting was there to "inform, educate and entertain" - Lord Reith's foundation for the BBC.

The good news is that producers seeking NZ On Air funding need agreement from broadcasters, meaning that it has only once funded a show that did not make it to air.

The downside is that in the trinity of the funder, the producer and the broadcaster, the TV networks have the upper hand.

Tacit government support was revealed last year when the Broadcasting Minister approved TVNZ's statement of intent with its main aim to take more taxpayer funding for commercial shows.

As advertising has collapsed the networks have tended to try to avoid risk.

In a long interview at her legal chambers in Princes St, Auckland, Dean repeats the argument advanced by networks that exclusively funding local content does not make commercial sense and commercial shows such as The GC, as with overseas format shows including NZ's Got Talent and The X Factor are a good use of taxpayer money.

The GC attracted a lot of flak and the first episode was too glitzy "but there was more cultural content as it went on and it was watched by 300,000 people and 300,000 online. It was a good use of money because it is better that young Maori were watching that rather than Neighbours at War," she said.

Next month NZ On Air looks set to fund $1.6 million of the second series of NZ's Got Talent on top of $1.6 million given to X Factor on competing channel TV3.

Dean said NZ On Air was bound by statute to take account of ratings and popularity.

But the death of TVNZ 7 has released a vocal minority who believe that NZ On Air is ignoring their needs.

Dean said allocations should be viewed in their entirety and the organisation was obliged to fund minority programming, radio and, increasingly, digital media. Shows such as 7 Days, The Almighty Johnsons and Nothing Trivial were important.

At the same meeting that gave $1.6 million to The X Factor, NZ On air also funded TVNZ 7 shows Back Benches and Media 3.

But she said one of the issues was that worthy shows such as Strongman, about the West Coast mining disaster, could garner acclaim but small audiences.

New media services such as On Demand and On Screen are becoming more popular and The GC, for instance, had as many viewers online as it did on TV.

It may be that digital media could become not just a source of additional viewers but also funding, she said.

After changes in the way people consume media many believe television will face the same upheavals that confront newspapers.

The Government is promoting Ultra Fast Broadband, opening up new media services.

Dean has expertise in the area as a director of Crown Fibre Holdings - the company that will run UFB.

And it is in this area where many believe Dean may provide the lead when the role of NZ On Air is to service commercial TV networks.

- NZ Herald

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