In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Time to tune out, turn off

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Tell me again - what's the point in the Government hanging on to TVNZ?

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

The funny thing about being a head television programmer is that you have a job almost everyone in the country imagines to be just about the best thing ever.

Scouting trips to Cannes to see interesting fare that may eventually turn up on Kiwi screens, for example. Hollywood jaunts to chat about hot new shows. Being bored rigid at barbecues when you tell people what you do, and they take the chance to let you know everything that's wrong with the state of television programming these days.

Despite the widely-held belief that the people who oversee programming at TVNZ need putting out to pasture, it has to be said that they're actually doing a bang-up job for the state broadcaster. TVNZ this week announced it would be paying a respectable $11.3 million to the Government as a dividend from the 2012 financial year, up a couple of million on the year before.

Those of us who have tried to watch anything vaguely high-rating on TV One or 2 will have no difficulty believing that advertising revenue has leapt $9 million in the year.

Nor would we be surprised that the company's underlying earnings were down by more than $12 million on the year before - the dip attributed to the cost of foreign programming. We can well understand that it's not cheap bringing the likes of Embarrassing Bodies - Cock and Balls Edition, The Voice Timbuktu and Gordon Ramsey's Cuss Jar Runneth Over to Kiwi homes.

So, TVNZ is a reasonably profitable operation, and returns a bit of dosh to the Government. The disaster that was TiVO and its champion Rick Ellis are gone. Plenty of money-conscious journeymen people its management ranks.

It's a different organisation altogether from the days I was working there, when big spending, risky hiring and a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah attitude pervaded the place. From the austere strictures of the Herald newsroom, where a coffee charged to the company would have you explaining yourself to the finance department in perpetuity, to TVNZ, where you got handed a company credit card with your welcome pack - way-hay!

But as TVNZ has become more corporatised, the case for government owning this resource has become even thinner. There is nothing "public service" about it, particularly. It turns a profit, but not one that makes a huge difference to the public coffers. It runs local content, but only in primetime if is guaranteed to get an audience (and drive advertising revenue).

It is unshackled from the demands of the waffly Charter. And perhaps, most importantly, the underlying fundamentals of the business are good, which means it might attract a buyer.

The ongoing dispute between TV One programmers and Coronation Street fans is an example of why TVNZ should give up any remaining pretence of being anything other than a commercial animal. Coro fans are the backbone, the heartland of TV One viewing. They are stuck there, with no choice but to follow the programme as it is shunted about the viewing schedule by programmers who believe it all too uncool. The audience - those at home and possibly those most reliant on television for entertainment - just aren't sexy enough for the advertisers TVNZ covets, so inanities such as Come Dine with Me and Three Other Weirdos are jammed into Coro time to see if they will do any better.

It's cruel and perverse. Even merchant bankers and private equity firms couldn't possibly be more unfeeling.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: illustrator@annacrichton.com

- NZ Herald

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