National denies policy aimed at sale of TVNZ

By Alanah Eriksen, NZPA, Alanah May Eriksen

National has again denied its proposal to make Television New Zealand compete for charter funding is a part of a plan to sell the state-owned company.

The party's broadcasting spokesman, Jonathan Coleman, yesterday said TVNZ would have to compete for millions of dollars it receives for screening local programmes should the National Party win the election.

Other broadcasters have welcomed the policy as a way of introducing fairness and transparency to the industry, but critics say there would be little point in keeping Television New Zealand in Government ownership.

Helen Clark described the policy as an assault on public broadcasting and Broadcasting Minister Trevor Mallard said it amounted to a trojan horse for privatisation.

But Dr Coleman this morning denied TVNZ would be sold.

"There is no plan to sell TVNZ," he said on Radio New Zealand.

"We want to maintain it in state ownership, we think it's a great public asset and it could be performing a lot better."

Dr Coleman said the $15 million TVNZ gets for local programmes was only 4 per cent of its annual revenue.

"Competition allows the best projects to come forward and be made," he said.

"TVNZ basically is an asset that hasn't been performing to its capability.

"It's a commercial broadcaster ... it hasn't been operating as a true public broadcaster for many many years."

Mr Mallard reacted to those comments by telling Radio New Zealand National planned to transfer the function of the charter to the private sector.

"If you run down the public sector the way they're planning to run down TVNZ and ACC, then in the end there is the question of why have them," he said.

"It's a matter of whether you believe them or not. They've made it very clear they're into privatisation."

The funding

Television New Zealand, which owns and operates five of New Zealand's free-to-air channels including TV One and TV2, runs under a charter that encourages it to show programmes that reflect New Zealand. In return, it gets $15 million because such broadcasts may not be commercially viable.

Dr Coleman said yesterday that a National government would release TVNZ from its charter obligations and give the money to New Zealand On Air, which would invite all free-to-air channels and independent producers to pitch for state investment in their projects.

The Government recently stripped TVNZ of the power to decide what it should spend the money on and said it would have to apply to NZ On Air on a programme-by-programme basis. It was not guaranteed it would get the entire allocation.

Dr Coleman said making the charter funding contestable would result in better public broadcasting from the charter money.

National believed TVNZ's dual mandate to make money and meet charter obligations had led to the failure of the charter.

The charter was just a "meaningless bunch of mission statements" and it was impossible to measure TVNZ's performance against them, Dr Coleman said.

There had been arguments about what a charter programme was and what the money should be spent on.

Paul Norris, head of broadcasting at Christchurch Polytechnic and a former director of Television NZ news and current affairs, said the policy was the "first step to the sale of TVNZ".

He predicted some programmes wouldn't get made if broadcasters were all behaving commercially.

"NZ On Air might think, 'Our objectives require more programmes for minorities - promotion of Maori language and culture and so forth - and we really want a programme about disabilities or something of that sort but we can't get a broadcaster to be interested in that'."

Commercial broadcasters have long been pushing for charter funding to be opened to bidders. Brent Impey, chief executive of MediaWorks, which owns TV3 and C4, said the policy would create greater fairness in funding of broadcasting.

"Most importantly, for viewers, this policy would create greater diversity in the content they enjoy on their screens, and would deliver a better bang for their taxpayer buck."

South Pacific Pictures production company chief executive John Barnett said the policy probably wouldn't change much in the industry because stripping TVNZ of the power to decide what it should spend the $15 million had already brought transparency.

The money TVNZ received under the charter reflected the number of applications it got for funding of local programmes so it would probably get more than $10 million back under the new policy anyway.

Broadcasting Minister Trevor Mallard said without TVNZ having charter obligations there was little point in keeping it as a state-owned broadcaster.

"The promise to retain ownership rings hollow. This policy is a Trojan horse privatisation down the track."

Mr Mallard was suspicious that a National government would also look to commercialise or even privatise Radio New Zealand.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said the policy would degrade TVNZ's ability to act as a public-interest broadcaster.

* Key proposals

National's broadcasting policy:

TVNZ will be released from its charter obligations - which currently earn it $15 million to show local programmes - and all free-to-air channels and producers will be invited to compete for the funding.

The Government will retain ownership of all current state broadcasters and maintain support for the Freeview platform.

Clear accountability will be demanded for the $79 million of direct funding that goes to TVNZ 6 & 7.

Maori Television will receive continued support.

Analogue will be switched off by 2015. The final date will be confirmed once 75 per cent of households have digital, or 2012, whichever occurs first.

Radio NZ National, Pacific Radio Trust and Access Radio will continue to receive funding.

Rating, audience and household penetration data for any broadcasting entity receiving state funding will be published regularly.

- NZ Herald

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