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Herald on Sunday editorial: Public television in a bad way

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Photo / Doug Sherring
Photo / Doug Sherring

It may be premature to recite the last rites over the corpse of TVNZ's commercial-free digital channel TVNZ7 but its condition is plainly terminal.

The story in our Spy column last Sunday said that the channel - launched on the Freeview platform in March 2008 and available on Sky Digital in July 2009 - would be broadcasting wall-to-wall repeats or turned into a shopping network. As the week wore on it was clear that the smart money was on the latter.

It is a development that is depressingly and predictably in line with the recent history of free-to-air broadcasting. TVNZ may reasonably claim that it must cut its coat according to its cloth, and the removal of government funding for the channel was its death knell.

But its commitment to the venture has been at best half-hearted and now it has a commercially valuable resource by way of a frequency that was given to it by taxpayers, who have funded it (and TVNZ6) to the tune of about $80 million since start-up. The TVNZ insider who told Spy that the frequency "is worth a reasonable amount of money" was putting it mildly.

If TVNZ were privately owned, this would be a massive rort. It is saved from being so only because the company is required to pay a dividend to the Government each year - though the country's major broadcaster is scarcely a cash cow: its dividend in the last financial year was $13.8 million; it received $36m in Government funding.

In the corporate boardroom, underlying earnings of $32m and a $2m after-tax profit are the sort of results that call for breaking out the cigars and champagne. But what seeps through the cracks in the balance sheets is the unquantifiable cultural value that we all derive from having a public broadcaster which reflects us back to ourselves.

In the capital-intensive and money-hungry business of television, the more money you can squeeze from a production budget the more likely the show is to get greenlit. The rise of so-called reality television is a result not of its astonishing formal inventiveness but because it's a beancounter's dream. A producer, camera operator, sound technician and you're away: the talent (police officers; surf lifesavers; Customs inspectors; drink drivers) comes for free.

It is facile for the spruikers of this brave new world of television to argue that shows like Border Security and Piha Rescue must be delivering audiences what they want, because they rate so well. It quite ignores the fact that television creates the appetites it feeds. In the early 1980s, when the idea of a prime-time local-content quota on Australian television was floated, it was howled down as commercial suicide; barely a generation later, the major networks know that audiences demand a good dose of home-grown television between the news and 9.30pm and programme accordingly.

The abolition of the $100-a-year licence fee in 1999 and the rapid rise of pay television have changed the landscape entirely. But the abolition of the TVNZ charter - which was a well-meaning but doomed idea so long as the organisation was simultaneously required to operate by commercial imperatives - means that the notion of public television (in the sense that Radio New Zealand provides public radio) has been leaking badly for a decade. The promise that TVNZ7 will become the home of home shopping - whose devotees are already well-served by Prime and off-peak programming on other channels - suggests that it will soon be dead in the water.

The sole bright light amid the gloom is Maori Television which has become the default public broadcaster and shown, in its 7 years of operation, that it can produce television that engages with and speaks to its audience in a way that mainstream television once used to.

In the financial circumstances in which the country finds itself, now is not the time to be throwing millions of dollars at this problem. But the end of TVNZ7 is a signal for us to take stock and decide as a nation whether we want all our television to be delivered on commercial platforms and according to global recipes or in a way that is uniquely ours.

Maori Television should be part of that discussion. Ian Taylor, a member of its board, said this week that "people tend to talk about funding first. But I think it should come down first to a vision of what is wanted." When was the last time anyone at TVNZ - or in the Beehive - said something like that?

- Herald on Sunday

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