Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: TVNZ's service ethic in state of disarray

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Who would have thought we'd ever hear a Minister of Broadcasting single out lack of buyers as the reason Television New Zealand was "not for sale".

Yet there in Saturday's Herald was the TVNZ shareholding minister, Jonathan Coleman saying, "if you look at what the equity has done nobody would want to buy it".

He was referring to a drop in the value of the company from $333 million in June 2000 to $184 million this year. From a commercial point of view he could be right. But what a depressing approach to his guardianship of this taonga.

Last November, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, in its briefing paper to him as the incoming Minister of Broadcasting, began by noting "yours is a role of considerable importance in the support and development of New Zealand's culture, and in the quality of information available to New Zealanders".

It pointed to "the very great influence of the broadcasting media on New Zealanders' understanding of their society and their involvement in its development".

The paper added that "New Zealand's distinctive culture is maintained by arts and creative activities, by sports and recreation, by engagement with our history, heritage and environment, and by languages, film and broadcasting. Important parts of our cultural life would simply not be present without intelligent intervention from the government." There would be no Te Papa, no New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, no public broadcasting.

At least, with its failed experimentation with a Charter, the previous government showed its instincts were in the right place.

But National is now getting rid of the last vestiges of any public service obligations for the state television provider, having introduced, from July this year, a $15.1 million Platinum Television Fund for New Zealand-made television content. Instead of this money being exclusively for "public service" TVNZ, the fund will now be open to all six free-to-air television broadcasters on a contestable basis.

Ominously, Dr Coleman announced the emphasis would be "on high quality broadcast content of wide appeal". Wide appeal as in lowest common denominator pap.

The only bright light on the public service horizon is Maori TV, the minnow of the state-funded world, but the only one that seems to appreciate the cultural treasure that a publicly-owned television service can be.

Maori Affair Minister Dr Pita Sharples has managed to embarrass both his National Party allies, the Labour Opposition, and TVNZ by jumping into the Rugby World Cup fray and guaranteeing Maori TV $3 million from ministry funds, to bid for the broadcasting rights. That's after TVNZ had backed away from the fray, saying it couldn't cover a potential $5 million loss. A "commercial" decision, said Dr Coleman, which he endorsed.

Dr Sharples argues that screening the World Cup on Maori TV would "create huge opportunities to promote and profile Maori business across the spectrum" and encourage New Zealanders "to use Maori words and phrases in everyday conversation". Both of which may be true. But what tickled my nostalgic nerve, was the harking back to the early days of television when TV One was the town hall of the nation, the bringer of major events, such as major rugby games, to everyone who had access to a television.

TVNZ cries poor over a miserable $3 million and Dr Coleman backs them. But what is this amount compared with the $190 million of taxpayers' dollars going into the Eden Park upgrade, the $20 million going into "party central" on Queens Wharf, and the cultural value of sharing the occasion with everyone?

Maori TV has already reminded us what a powerful cultural force the medium can be in its extended coverage of national events such as Anzac Day commemorations and the tangi of the late Maori Queen. It was able to, because TVNZ long ago gave up any pretence of being New Zealand's BBC.

A few days ago I unearthed a box of video tapes I'd recorded from TVNZ in better times. There was Maxim Shostakovich conducting the NZSO in his father's famous 5th Symphony, and Dame Joan Sutherland live from the Michael Fowler Centre - concerts from one of the first Wellington International Arts Festival. There was a concert from Covent Garden starring New Zealanders celebrating the 1990 sesquicentennial. There were documentaries on important issues that lasted longer than five minutes. There were current affairs shows where newsmakers were grilled. There were local performers like the Limbs Dance company. Those were the days when TVNZ took its public broadcaster role seriously. Today, the only glimmer of this public service ethic comes from Maori TV.

When television was launched here in 1960, the service ethic instilled by Professor James Shelley, director of broadcasting from 1936 to 1949 was still paramount. The medium was seen as much more valuable than just a means of keeping the masses docile.

Advertising was seen as a necessary evil - only topping up licence fee funding. Then, licence fee revenues made up about 75 per cent of income, with the three days of commercials - no more than six minutes an hour - making up the difference. But politicians were reluctant to increase the licence fees and by 1985, they represented just 16 per cent of TVNZ revenue. Licences were abolished in 1999 and replaced with direct funding. Government was supposed to make up the $100 a household licence fee but that never eventuated.

TVNZ lost not just its licence fee support, but was also expected to pay the Government a handsome dividend. Peter Thompson, Unitec senior lecturer in communication studies, calculated earlier this year, that between 2003 and 2008, TVNZ received $95 million in Charter funding from the government for "public service" activities, but returned $142 million to the Government in dividends.

How right, Dr Coleman's briefing paper was to say that "without intelligent intervention from government" there would be no public broadcasting.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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