MPs roast TVNZ chief over 'Shortland Street is Maori coverage' comments

By Paula Oliver

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The head of TVNZ has received a roasting from Maori MPs after he cited Shortland Street and Police Ten-7 as examples of what the state broadcaster was doing to meet its charter obligations to Maori.

TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis made the comments during an appearance before the Maori Affairs select committee at Parliament yesterday.

The committee asked for the broadcaster to appear to talk about its commitment to Maori programming after a recent financial review of Te Mangai Paho, the state-funded agency that funds Maori language broadcasting.

Prime Minister Helen Clark today said Mr Ellis' comments were inappropriate.

"I cannot see that one could count the programmes he mentioned as contributing to Maori perspectives on television. I think Rick Ellis would be best to rethink that one," she said.

Questioning of Mr Ellis yesterday largely centred on why Maori language programmes were scheduled outside prime viewing times, and the briefing then took a turn toward what TVNZ was doing outside those programmes to meet its charter objective of ensuring the presence of a significant Maori voice.

National Party MP Georgina te Heuheu said she had heard that TVNZ viewed Shortland Street as helping it fulfil its charter obligations because it featured Maori families.

Mr Ellis said Shortland Street was "absolutely a critical" component in delivering on TVNZ's charter commitments.

Asked what programmes he considered actually fulfilled TVNZ's charter responsibility in terms of Maori perspectives, Mr Ellis reeled off a long list.

"If you look to mainstream programming that has a Maori presence ... Dream Home, Shortland Street, Ten Years Younger, Intrepid Journeys, Location Location, Animal House, Game of Two Halves, Police Ten-7, Charm School, Lost Children ... I could go on," Mr Ellis said.

His answer did not please many of the committee's MPs, who frowned at the mention of programmes such as Police Ten-7 - an up-to-date crime programme featuring details about real offenders.

And New Zealand First MP Pita Paraone said he did not think that the appearance of comedian Mike King on Game of Two Halves fulfilled what he thought was Maori content in a programme.

Ms Te Heuheu was less than complimentary about Shortland Street when she labelled the long-running soap as "crap". She told Mr Ellis that having a Maori presence in programmes was one thing, but having a Maori perspective was quite another.

Mr Ellis strongly defended the placement of Maori language programmes, telling MPs that moving news programme Te Karere closer to the main 6pm news bulletin would potentially result in a huge loss of revenue.

Shifting Te Karere to a 5pm screening time from 4.40pm would result in a net revenue loss of up to $800,000 a year, Mr Ellis said, and moving it to 5.30pm would see a loss of closer to $2.1 million.

The potential that the programme would deliver a smaller audience to the flagship 6pm news bulletin exposed TVNZ to a further revenue risk of up to $18 million, Mr Ellis argued.

"We are, at the end of the day, a commercial broadcaster," he told the committee.

"Let's be realistic about this - less than 4 per cent of New Zealanders speak Maori and so putting a Maori language programme in prime time ... it simply won't rate."

Mr Ellis highlighted ratings figures that showed more people watched the state broadcaster's Maori language programmes than watched those of Maori Television.

Rating the ratings

* After the hearing, Maori Television issued a statement saying TVNZ had given MPs incorrect information about its ratings.

* It said the committee was told Maori TV attracted an audience of 13,000 viewers to its Anzac Day broadcast, but according to AGB Nielsen Media Research the cumulative audience was 203,000.

* TVNZ had stated Maori TV reached only 15 per cent of Maori, but according to the same research organisation the figure was 32 per cent of Maori every month this year.

- with NZPA

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