Leading group calls for TVNZ overhaul

By Claire Trevett, Claire Trevett
To read the letter, use the link at the foot of the page 

Prominent New Zealanders, including former Governors-General, judges, politicians and Sir Edmund Hillary, have called for Television New Zealand to slash advertising and adopt a fully publicly-funded model.

An open letter to Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey, signed by 31 prominent New Zealanders, claimed TVNZ had been "hijacked and abused" by advertisers and the Government.

Television should "make a better contribution to our national life" and "radical change" was required, it said.

It called for TVNZ to become a fully publicly-funded broadcaster, similar to the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The group was led by respected broadcaster Ian Johnstone, author James McNeish and the former vice-chancellor of Victoria University, Professor Les Holborow.

It included two former Governors-General - Sir Michael Hardie Boys and Dame Catherine Tizard - Sir Edmund Hillary, Dame Malvina Major and other dames and knights.

Mr Johnstone said the group might be "old pensioners wishing there was something better to watch on television" but they believed the feeling was widespread. "The viewers are fed up with the lousy service. We have to get rid of the mongrel system we have.

Either we have a public television system or we don't."

He wanted commercials to be reduced by a third, but preferably by a half, and a public television service that reflected life in New Zealand.

There was a feeling of regret at the loss of such programmes as Close to Home, McPhail & Gadsby, Gallery and scores of other local programmes.

"I realise we are a bunch of old men and women saying it used to be better. But it was," Mr Johnstone said.

Mr Maharey said the Government had no plans to create a fully funded television channel. "We have, however, substantially increased the public investment in public broadcasting through charter funding for TVNZ and increases to NZ On Air funding.

"Programmes such as Insiders Guide to Happiness, bro'Town or Frontier of Dreams, to name just a few, would not have been made without this direct investment in public broadcasting."

Local programming had increased from 2804 hours in 1989 to 6423 in 2004. In the past year, 42.3 per cent of peak- time programming on TVNZ was local content, Mr Maharey said.

On TV One, local content made up nearly 60 per cent of peak programming, including the news.

Another signatory, Sir Douglas Graham, said the hours might be up, but quality was down.

New Zealand television seemed "designed for the lowest common denominator" and the news was too focused on crime and court stories.

Author Dame Fiona Kidman said public broadcasting "is an act of service to the viewers in this country" and should fund relevant programmes.

"A lot of the content now is cheap and easy. Quality drama requires quite a commitment of funding, and if everything is a commercial imperative to make money to keep the Crown-owned company afloat, it makes it much more difficult."

National's state-owned enterprises spokeswoman, Katherine Rich, said New Zealand could not continue to look backwards to the "television experience" of the 1970s when there was first one channel, and then two.

"People are getting their media fix from a wide range of sources, not just Television One. It is unfair to burden a state broadcaster with meeting the needs of everyone."

TVNZ receives about $15 million in charter funding each year. Over the last financial year, the figure was boosted by a dividend return of $11.4 million and it received $25,600,000 for Charter programmes.

* TVNZ's former chief executive Ian Fraser has taken his personal grievance case against the TVNZ board to mediation. additional reporting: Otago Daily Times

* What do you think? Should we have a commercial-free public TV channel? Email the Herald news desk (link below)

Change the channel: The TVNZ campaigners

Sir Edmund Hillary.
Neil Ashcroft (professor of physics).
George Barton, QC, and Ailsa Barton, Wellington.
Paul Callaghan (nuclear physicist and professor, Victoria University).
Margaret Clark (professor of political science, Victoria University).
Christine Cole Catley (author & publisher), Auckland.
Ian Cross (author and former Broadcasting Corporation chairman).
Dame Pat Evison (actor) and Roger Evison (past president of Wellington Rotary).
Sir Michael Fowler (former Mayor of Wellington).
Maurice Gee (author).
Sir Douglas Graham (former Cabinet minister).
Sir Michael Hardie Boys (former judge and Governor-General).
Bob Harvey (Mayor of Waitakere City and former Labour Party president).
Les Holborow (professor and former vice-chancellor of Victoria University).
Michael Houstoun (concert pianist).
Ian Johnstone (broadcaster).
Sue Kedgley (Green Party MP).
Dame Fiona Kidman (author).
Margaret Mahy (author).
Dame Malvina Major (opera singer).
James McNeish (author).
Merwyn Norrish (former head of Foreign Affairs) and Francoise Norrish.
Vincent O'Sullivan (author).
Jo Randerson (writer-actor).
Jeff Tallon (professor of physics, Victoria University).
Dame Catherine Tizard (former Governor-General and Mayor of Auckland).
Tom Williams (cardinal).
Sir Owen Woodhouse (former chief judge of the Court of Appeal).

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