Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Perhaps now's a good time to sell off TVNZ

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Seven Sharp.  Photo / Supplied.
Seven Sharp. Photo / Supplied.

Has it really been that bad? Reading some of the early impressions of Seven Sharp, you'd think TV One had scheduled Kick Philip Sherry In The Head to follow the news. Judged on its own terms, it's a perfectly decent, imperfect first week. Hard-hitting, probing current affairs it is not. It aspires to be a snappy, accessible, jazz-hands take on events - and on that score it's doing just fine. If someone from afar were parachuted into a New Zealand lounge to sit in front of the show, my bet is they'd find it familiar fare, even mildly entertaining.

Had Seven Sharp been a new show on TV3, replacing - perish the thought - Campbell Live, it's unlikely it would have generated such a bilious response, that knives would have been so feverishly sharpened. Built into much of the criticism is an expectation that TV One should do things with a bit of gravitas, higher purpose. They're publicly owned, right? They should do broadcasting for the public.

Well, yes and no. When the TVNZ charter was torn up in 2011, it left the broadcaster with a single, uncomplicated raison d'etre: make money. The charter was a mess of a thing, certainly, but it at least obliged TVNZ to in part behave like a public broadcaster. Today, its only imperative is to turn a profit. Close Up was slipping, especially in the most coveted demographics for advertisers, and so it was replaced with Seven Sharp. Right or wrong, the decision is at core commercial, not editorial. Letters of complaint should go to the Beehive, not Victoria St.

In 2010, National's then broadcasting minister, Jonathan Coleman, was frank. TV One and 2 should be a place "where you can expect to find frankly nakedly commercial stuff". The government demands that TVNZ behave in a purely nakedly commercial manner, and they do exactly that.

Witness not just the demise of TVNZ 7, but the way that their overlords at TVNZ buried the non-commercial channel, for fear that people might, heaven forbid, notice it. What could have been their junior stablemate, a place to experiment, a feeder channel, was instead consigned to the basement, foot on the trapdoor, until the oxygen expired. Right or wrong, a commercial decision.

The emasculation of the news and current affairs department, the shrinking of current affairs output (tagline: Sunday - like 60 Minutes but half the length), the saturation of primetime with cheap reality dross, imported formats for local talent shows (especially shameful given TVNZ was the birthplace of the pioneering Popstars), the constant canoodling with Sky: all stem from purely commercial ambitions. Their success or failure is to be measured, demands the government, aka The Shareholder, by the dividend they return.

That dividend was $11.3 million last financial year. Hardly a fortune - it barely covers the ministerial car budget - but it's all income. Why not get into more state enterprise for the Brighter Future? The New Zealand government could open fish and chip shops - they're profitable. Gyms. A new nationwide supermarket chain. If we own TVNZ, why not those?

For a government that champions a shrinking state, for one that is hellbent on selling publicly owned assets that are critical to our ongoing energy security, what possible reason is there to retain control of TVNZ? In case we go to war?

About a year after the launch of TV3, so the story goes, a transmission error saw TV One broadcast a test pattern for about half an hour. That test pattern still rated twice the numbers that 3 did. Apocryphal or not, the anecdote contains a truth: there is a steadfast, historic loyalty to One. But that fidelity is no longer with any foundation; and it is no reason to keep the company in state hands.

So sell TVNZ. It would end any residual confusion within the organisation about their purpose. It would end any misplaced vestigial attachment by audiences who still dream of the Goodnight Kiwi. Paradoxically, it might encourage TVNZ to pursue more public-interest journalism to retain a "national voice" reputation. For anyone who believes, as I do, that New Zealand should have a mainstream public TV broadcaster, it would blow away any fog around the question of whether we currently have one. We do not.

Way ahead in the queue from nationally strategic assets such as Mighty River Power and the rest, TVNZ should go on the block. And they can have this one for free: start by flogging 49 per cent in a live-to-air auction - New Zealand's Next Top Mixed Ownership Model.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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