Maori TV's trying to do it on the cheap

By ROSINA HAUITI*

The cost to Maori television production companies before and after the John Davy affair has been high. Many who had been anticipating extra income have been left high and dry, the fallout from being expected to produce programming for about half the industry rate.

While production companies can for the most part sympathise with the predicament facing the Maori Television Service, it is commercial absurdity to expect quality programming at Third World rates.

The MTS chairman, Derek Fox, will not be drawn on issues of quality, citing a lack of Government funding as the problem. Rather, he says he is "pleasantly surprised at the quality of some of the programme ideas that have been put to the board under this funding regime".

But cheap is cheap. The example of troubled Kahukura Productions, producers of Film Commission-financed low and no-budget films, seems to have escaped the Maori Television Service commissioning panel.

But if a substantial producer such as Larry Parr can fail with Kahukura, how much better do they think other production companies will fare?

Concerns have surfaced in private from successful contract bidders over quality. Approaches from the commissioning panel have been made to at least one award-winning producer to help out a successful rival bidder with no track record.

Such is the direness of the situation that complaints of embellishment on the part of two Maori production companies to gain favour has been played down by the channel.

The complainants have requested Maori Television Service records under the Official Information Act. MTS has referred the matter to the Ministry for Maori Development, but has recommended the request be declined on the basis that disclosure would prejudice the commercial sensitivities of the parties in question.

Joanna Paul, a consultant for MTS and a commissioning panel member, has said it is not the board's role to verify all the information contained in the proposals.

Good faith might normally be the order of the day but not so in the case of the MTS. The Davy debacle took care of that, and every action and decision made by the board should be above reproach.

Last-minute changes to the scant procedures that exist for the MTS financing rounds have for many production companies contributed to the erosion in confidence in the two boards. Production companies that have waited patiently and, for the most part, without complaint for the new channel to become operational have been much short-changed.

Both the MTS and Te Mangai Paho must take responsibility for the squabbling that ensued over the crumbs thrown to production companies. In particular, how could Derek Fox have imagined such daftness would be well received? It is not enough to have good intentions. Production companies are about real people with bills to pay.

While the Government is responsible for the abysmal funding levels, this does not excuse a lack of foresight. The response of the Minister of Maori Affairs, Parekura Horomia, that the MTS will provide an important vehicle for innovative and creative television is laughable in the circumstances. If the likes of Michael Cullen insist that Maori operate on Third World rates, why didn't they also provide for leveraging opportunities - opportunities that do not include ripping off production companies? This is an area where the skills of the MTS' interim chief executive, Wayne Walden, could surely have been put to use.

Joint-venture opportunities, which could have raised funding to standard industry levels, should have been sought with agencies such as Learning Media, the Maori Language Commission, Te Taura Whiri, and Television New Zealand and TV3.

While some Maori production companies might have gained from the last funding round, most did not. Regaining the lost confidence of those disaffected companies should now be a priority for the MTS board.

Looking at ways to raise the financing levels is a good start. Appointing a commissioner of programmes is another. The incumbent, Joanna Paul (acting as a consultant), is capable but a troubled past makes her an unpopular choice with many industry personnel.

Still, Maori are not spoiled for choice. Just because John Davy turned out to be a lemon should not preclude appointing a non-Maori for the position. Likewise for the chief executive role. Also important would be a safe vehicle for input from Maori production companies.

All is not safe and well at the coalface. Unless the Government, through the MTS and Te Mangai Paho, starts treating Maori production companies as commercial entities rather than cut-price outlets, these companies are better off producing for mainstream television.

And if that is the case, what is the point of having a Maori channel?

* Rosina Hauiti is a producer with Auckland-based Maori production company Front of the Box Productions.

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