Viewers could be forgiven for thinking commercial television is all there is. Ads and more ads. A narrowing range of programmes, all aimed at the mass audience. Endless American crime series - we must be more informed on the latest breakthroughs in forensic analysis than on social trends in our own country. American sitcoms complete with raucous canned laughter. International variations on cooking competitions. Or freak shows masquerading as documentaries.
Is that it? Is that the level to which television has sunk in this country? Commercial television is all very well, but it cannot be all there is. There needs to be some kind of balance between the commercial arena and programmes that are not driven by the ratings and the demands of advertisers trying to reach their favoured demographics. Programmes that are driven by social or cultural needs, programmes that stimulate the mind, programmes that inform, educate and often inspire, sometimes derided under the label of public broadcasting.
Such programmes include documentaries that reveal significant aspects of our past, or examine present trends and future possibilities. Or programmes that exhibit our culture through performance - concerts, opera or ballet, counterpoints to the popular culture we will undoubtedly see in New Zealand's Got Talent. Or programmes appealing to ethnic or cultural minorities, be they book-lovers or those interested in analysis of our media.
Essentially public broadcasting aims to meet the challenge of providing quality programmes for all sections of society, especially those not served by commercial broadcasters, aptly described as market failure.
Which is why we must preserve TVNZ 7. Let us not accept its loss too readily, as Paul Casserly is inclined to do (Herald, April 16). For those who have not yet discovered this channel, it is a factual outlet with quality documentaries, imported and local, and news on the hour with a substantial hour long news programme daily at 8pm. It also carries a number of original local programmes appealing to specific groups - Media 7 for media followers, The Good Word for book-lovers, Back Benches for political aficionados, The Court Report for legal buffs, and Hindsight for those keen to trawl the past.
It is a digital only, entirely non-commercial channel, paid for with government funding to encourage the launch of new digital channels in advance of the switch from analogue to digital in the near future. But it can fairly be described as the last bastion of public broadcasting in our otherwise fully commercial environment. (Maori Television can also be considered a form of public broadcasting). TVNZ's Charter and the public funding attached to it has been removed by the National Government, meaning it is driven only by commercial imperatives and is a public broadcaster in name only.
Which means that TVNZ has little or no interest in continuing to provide TVNZ 7, and the Government has said that funding for the channel will stop in June.
Government Ministers are fond of saying public broadcasting in television is achieved through NZ On Air, which funds a variety of local programmes across the commercial channels, programmes that might well not be made if they were not funded by NZ On Air, in that imported programmes are always much cheaper than programmes made here.
NZ On Air allocates its limited funding adroitly but it is at the mercy of the commercial broadcasters - it can only fund programmes that they are willing to screen, and commercial pressures have intensified in recent months.
NZ On Air funds some elements of public broadcasting but by no means the full range of programmes. Nor does it fund any of the programmes on TVNZ 7.
So what is to be done? Clearly we need to retain TVNZ 7 or a channel like it where viewers can find non-commercial programming. Is it a matter of cost? If the channel continued to be hosted by TVNZ, or possibly by Sky under the forthcoming Igloo package, the cost of programme content could be as little as $10 million to $15 million a year. The Government has said there will be no new money for broadcasting, but this relatively small sum could come from the digital dividend - up to $1 billion of windfall profits accruing to the Treasury from the sale of the redundant frequencies when we transition to digital.
It is not so much a question of money as of political will. Neither the Government nor TVNZ has any appreciation of, or appetite for, public broadcasting. So viewers who care, who believe that it is vital that we have a non-commercial platform to balance all the commercial channels, should speak up loudly now. Tell the Government that we cannot accept its decision to close TVNZ 7. Sign the petition at www.savetvnz7.co.nz . If we lose TVNZ 7, its demise will signal an abject failure of government policy. As a nation we deserve better than this.
Paul Norris is a senior staff member of the New Zealand Broadcasting School at the Christchurch Polytechnic. He is the co-author of a recently completed evaluative study of NZ On Air 1989-2011.