Dark days for our state broadcaster - again

By Deborah Coddington, Can TVNZ recover from its most humiliating internal spat yet? Deborah Coddington examines the future -, the murky past - of the state-owned broadcaster.

Forget analogies about political footballs. TVNZ has been spear-tackled.

Parliament’s microphones weren’t needed to pick up Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey’s groans when he was told that chief executive Ian Fraser had quit, or rather that he had "given six months’ notice he won’t be renewing his contract".

Maharey must have known that Fraser had delivered a meal for the Opposition to munch on, despite TVNZ’s chairman, Craig Boyce, noting that the board was required by the government to "sign off" salaries above $300,000, and that "part of that [is] to take an interest in appointments and negotiations".

Fraser, whose career has spanned journalism, public relations and a stint as chief executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, oversaw TVNZ’s transition from a commercial state-owned enterprise required to deliver a dividend to shareholders (ie taxpayers), to a Crown-owned company needing to provide quality public broadcasting, as set out in the TVNZ Charter.

As some wags point out, the SOE is now a CROC.

The Charter’s implementation in March 2003 was supposed to end the era of so-called crap television and allow New Zealanders to see more of their own culture.

So why have TVNZ’s ratings continued a downward slide while those of privately-owned TV3 have steadily climbed, especially in the Auckland market?

Critics from both sides of the divide - those who believe TVNZ should be privatised and those who say it should be the television equivalent of National Radio - agree on one thing: Structure is the problem.

For Dan Salmon, Auckland-based president of the Screen Directors’ Guild, it’s also an attitudinal problem - there’s no will in TVNZ to make or screen public service broadcasting.

"There are five generations in my family now," says Salmon, "and I don’t think there’s anything on TVNZ for any of them."

Salmon would love for New Zealand to have some equivalent of the Special Broadcasting Service - Australia’s multicultural and multi-lingual public service broadcaster.

"Public broadcasting, for want of a better word, delivers what is part of the landscape and ironically we have it with TV3 programmes like bro’Town and Outrageous Fortune. Why? Because the programmers are prepared to take the risks. TV3 has, since its inception, had a culture of nothing to lose."

Salmon represents television and film directors and says his members don’t just want a public broadcasting channel so they can sell more programmes and make more money.

"I’d never say we shouldn’t have programmes like DIY Disasters, but there are New Zealand directors who want to make good quality programmes, even if that means making fewer programmes. Critics tell us we just want to make rarefied stuff that nobody wants to watch but I defy anybody to show me a director who wants to make programmes that nobody watches."

TVNZ’s dual demands of culture and commerce, according to Salmon, mean commerce wins every time.

"What TVNZ needs is a group of people, or a CEO, who ‘get it’; people with a vision of public broadcasting beyond the charter - depth and breadth so viewers can still get their cheap and cheerful programmes, the fish and chips if you like, but also their five fruit and veges a day; programmes that make them think."

One name favoured by some TVNZ insiders is Jo Tyndall, chief executive of NZ On Air for the past six years. Tyndall, currently seconded to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage as director of digital broadcasting strategy, is regarded as smart, competent and discreet, thanks to her background in foreign affairs, and is seen as having ably handled the dual role of dealing with broadcasters and reporting to government.

Board member John Goulter is also seen as a possible replacement - he skilfully managed a similar private/public hybrid, Auckland International Airport. But Goulter is also expected to put his hand up for the chairman’s job once Craig Boyce’s term expires at the end of December.

Another name tipped as a contender is Shaun Brown, formerly TVNZ’s head of television, now in the same role at Australia’s SBS.

Although Brown insists he’s a public broadcaster at heart, the irony of the suggestion is not lost on some. He was, after all, at least partly responsible for axing Fraser’s current affairs show seven years ago, which prompted Fraser to storm out of the place the first time around.

No one was surprised when Brown left not long after Fraser came back as chief executive.

But Brown has his defenders.

"The problem certainly wasn’t Shaun Brown," former TVNZ chief executive, Chris Anderson, told an Australian journalist two years ago. The problem, Anderson was reported as saying, was that the model itself was corrupted.

"What you had, effectively, was government pressure for commercial success and for TVNZ to pay the government a financial dividend. At the same time there was, in many quarters, a desire for solid, responsible, public service broadcasting. And you simply can’t have both."

Brown himself laughs at the suggestion he might be keen to return, and points out he’s "put my hat in the ring" for the managing director’s position at SBS.

He has lately been joined at SBS by former TVNZ head of news Paul Cutler. Cutler left in 2001 to work for CNN in Hong Kong after an outcry over the way TVNZ handled a news story about a new cancer drug.

Are Brown and Cutler chuckling?

"There are a few ex-TVNZers who now find themselves offshore," says Brown. "A network of flowing emails. But mostly I’m saddened by the situation which has now emerged. I hope TVNZ can come through this and be restored to the high position it had - particularly TV One - when it was really the leader in news and current affairs."

Brown is not sure the company could be turned into a public service broadcaster like SBS.

"It’s the tyranny of size against New Zealand. It costs just as much to make and screen television for four million people as it does for 20 million. But in New Zealand you’d be drawing from less than four million people for funding.

"The added fear would be, say $120 million was stumped up by government but the content didn’t live up to viewers’ expectations, then viewers would drop off, the political will to maintain support would drop off, and the organisation would be sapped of talent."

On the other side of the argument are those who say TVNZ’s problems are only going to be fixed when the government - any government - bites the bullet and privatises it.

John Barnett is chief executive of South Pacific Pictures, which makes, among other things, Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune.

Barnett pulls no punches - the charter and the ownership have screwed TVNZ, he says.

The problem is the government doesn’t understand how it works.

"It’s just grossly dysfunctional in structure and it should be privatised. I really feel for the staff - be they reporters, commissioners, cameramen, programmers, security, sellers of ads - who have to get on with their jobs so they can bring in a million dollars a day."

Like most government-owned organisations, it has also been irreparably damaged by years of changing politics, says Barnett.

"Just over six years ago, TVNZ was being readied for sale. Then we had a change of government and it was like, ‘Whoops, the ship’s changing direction now, we’re going the other way’. There’s this confusion of objectives and it’s just impossible. But if the staff don’t do their jobs properly the place won’t work.

"In the past 10 years they’ve had four CEOs and four chairmen."

Indeed. Those who have followed its public dramas for more than a decade could be forgiven for thinking they were stuck in some kind of real-life soap opera with endless re-runs.

Presenters’ salaries, executives’ drug habits, directors’ expense accounts, and programmers’ apparent lack of any taste have all been endlessly aired amid a continuous cycle of restructuring, scoping reports and political hand-wringing.

So what’s new, asks Lindsay Perigo, who infamously left his job at TVNZ in 1993 declaring the place "braindead" because studio interviews were culled.

"Their treatment of stars left a lot to be desired way back then," says a now more laidback Perigo.

The late Peter Sinclair, for example, found out he was no longer fronting quiz show Mastermind after reading about it in the papers.

"TVNZ’s always been bad at renewing contracts. We’d go into summer not having a contract renewed. They’d always roll them over, but ironically it was because they were so lax that I was able to walk."

But if commentators are right, TVNZ’s problems go beyond deciding who runs the place or reads the news.

National’s broadcasting spokeswoman Georgina te Heu Heu says her party does not have a policy to privatise the broadcaster, but would ensure board neutrality by changing the appointment process.

"We’d have an apolitical board by getting cross-party support for board members - the same for Radio New Zealand because as long as you have public broadcasting there exists the opportunity for political interference, either directly or indirectly."

Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey declined to comment.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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