John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Regional TV channels may face axe

Jim Blackman, chief executive of Stratos TV. Photo / NZ Herald
Jim Blackman, chief executive of Stratos TV. Photo / NZ Herald

Regional channels could be the next victims of the Government's increasingly commercially focused broadcasting policy that favours pay TV.

Campaigners for public service television say the extra transmission charges due when local TV goes digital will force some regional channels off air.

On December 23 state-owned transmission company Kordia pulled the plug on public TV channel Stratos, ending four years on air and a long-running negotiation about its charges.

TVNZ canned 6 in March last year and from June TVNZ 7 is being turned into a shopping channel run by ad agency Ogilvy.

The Government is refusing to back public television beyond Maori TV and New Zealand On Air.

Unlike TVNZ 6 and 7, Stratos was privately owned.

Closure means the loss of some quality news programmes from the English-language service of Al Jazeera and the PBS News Hour, though some content will continue on Triangle, a sister channel to Stratos covering the Auckland region.

Beyond the transmission costs with Kordia, other commercial factors were at play in the demise of Stratos.

Part-owner and chief executive Jim Blackman said it had never made a profit.

He said advertiser support lagged behind growing viewership because the advertising industry had never got its head around cumulative ratings figures.

In the end he and the other directors of the privately owned public channel could not make ends meet.

But the transmission charges from Kordia were the biggest cost.

Kordia says it is in talks with other channels to take over the digital frequencies, and Stratos is looking at ways it can return.

But it is unlikely Stratos or other non-commercial channels will be able to afford it.

Blackman and public television promoter David Beatson, who has worked with regional channels to develop Stratos as the foundation for regional services, both warned there were troubled times ahead for regional television.

Auckland regional channel Triangle also faces a battle to afford extra transmission charges after the digital switchover.

Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss said the Government was not responsible for Stratos going off air and had no obligations to keep up TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 after five years of funding ends in June.

Stratos going off air was over a commercial relationship with Kordia, not because of government policy, Foss said.

As part of the digital switchover, regional channels will lose access to free frequencies and have to pay Kordia for digital ones.

Foss rejected a suggestion the Government was leaving 18 regional channels high and dry over the digital switchover, saying it had given about $70,000 to each of them to deal with the transition.

But regional TV promoters say this is nowhere near enough for a sector that already runs on a shoestring.

Blackman said that Stratos had an operational budget of just $1.25 million - a small proportion of the amount taxpayers paid for commercial series such as Outrageous Fortune.

OFF AIR
*TVNZ 6 was scrapped last year and TVNZ 7 will go in June.
*Stratos TV was axed because state transmission company Kordia charged so much.
*More community TV channels face closure to meet growing transmission charges

- NZ Herald

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