Plan to roll cameras at cash-starved radio studios could end up sinking both services.
Fifty or so years ago, New Zealand's fledgling public television service donned a pretty new dress, slipped out the front door of its radio parent's home, and skipped off down the street to conquer the world.
Sadly, it was soon seduced by the bright lights of commercialism and now, used and abused and left for dead, its friends are knocking on the door of Radio New Zealand seeking refuge for the wayward child.
Led by South Pacific Pictures CEO John Barnett, they want to turn the clock back half a century and try again. The proposal is to set up some fixed cameras in RNZ studios, and beam out radio with pictures. My initial concern was that the intrusion of a commercial "white knight" like Mr Barnett was just repeating the mistakes of the past. But in truth the problem is simpler than that.
Radio New Zealand is in financial crisis, starved for years by successive governments. To now expect it to act as hospice for the dying remains of what passes as public service television could be the tipping point leading to the destruction of public service radio as well.
We've learnt to live without the public service television that Australians and Britons take for granted. It would be a calamity to lose RNZ's National (as we users still call it) and Concert programmes as well.
Mr Barnett, who has the enthusiastic support of new Radio New Zealand chairman Richard Griffin, is reportedly claiming he could set up an RNZ-based television service, with news and current affairs at its core, for around $4 million.
Perhaps Mr Griffin, as a one-time press secretary for National Party Prime Minister Jim Bolger, has inside advice that government financial support will be forthcoming. But the Government's antipathy to the "lefty" public broadcaster is well known, and it finding extra cash for it in these austere times would be a great surprise.
The Barnett proposal sounds like a pared down version of a proposal floating around last year to merge RNZ with non-commercial TVNZ 7. That plan seems to have sunk without trace. Instead we're now looking at the "home bedroom studio" version, with three fixed cameras in a radio studio, iPods and iPhones for reporters so they can Skype their reports back to home base, and fill-up film from whatever cheap source is on offer.
It all sounds rather desperate. And without commitment of extra money from the Government, suicidal. A KPMG review of RNZ funding in 2007 said public radio was understaffed and needed more than $10 million extra in annual income to do its job. The Government ignored the report and continues to freeze funds. This year Mr Griffin admitted RNZ could survive a funding freeze only for another two years.
Last month, RNZ registered as a charity, seemingly in the hope of donations from grateful listeners. While it waits for that miracle, the pruning goes on. There was no cash to put in a bid for Rugby World Cup coverage. Concert FM told the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra this year it could no longer pay a fee for broadcasting their concerts live.
In conditions of such financial extremis, proposing public radio service take on additional responsibilities without any commitment of extra funding is crazy.
Even if funding was not a problem, I wonder at the wisdom of interfering with a medium that has worked so well for near on a century. Radio doesn't need pictures to convey its message. Would Morning Report be the better for bringing us Christchurch Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee at the crack of dawn, grumpy in his pyjamas in jerky, low definition, webcam video?
Then there are the announcers. Radio doyenne Kim Hill's short stretch as a TV current affairs interrogator is an awful lesson to them all. Her high quality of interviewing survived the switch of medium, but the gurning, and her inability to sit still, proved a distraction too much.
Just as the written word has survived a century of wireless communication, radio too has retained a niche for itself that doesn't need moving pictures to go with it.
The buzz word is convergence, and with hand-held electronic devices and wifi broadband, all, as they say, is change. RNZ, despite its limited funds, has been flirting with the new mediums. Much of its news and commentary content is downloadable for listening at one's convenience.
On the music side, a few concerts are downloadable in music format. As for video, the best is a multi-camera recording of the NZSO playing Mahler's 6th symphony from the Auckland Town Hall.
No doubt, with improved funding, RNZ would be able to do more in this field. But first we need a plan, and a commitment from government. All we've got at the moment is a bright idea from a commercial film maker which, if rushed into, risks bringing what's left of public broadcasting to its knees.