Political parties need to listen carefully when TVNZ asks to be relieved of its obligation to screen their election broadcasts. These productions, which can take an hour of prime time at the opening and closing of election campaigns, rate very poorly. The state-owned broadcaster has complained to Parliament's justice and electoral committee that its legal requirement to provide the free time to parties is out of step with its commercial mandate. It asks that the obligation be lifted or imposed on its commercial rivals too.
Labour leader Andrew Little has not listened carefully. "TVNZ have to remember they are a publicly owned organisation as well as being commercial," Mr Little said. "I don't think it's wrong for us to hold them to some public service requirements." He also thought its position verified the need for a genuine public service channel.
He is probably not the only leading politician who has missed the point. The broadcaster is telling them people are tuning out. Their opening addresses for last year's campaign rated 38 per cent down on TVNZ's average audience for the previous six Saturday nights. The Labour leader sounds unconcerned about that. The audience was still large and the addresses were part of a healthy democracy, he said.
A healthy democracy is one that can arouse people's interest in politics. Professionals in news media have proven more successful in that regard than political party productions. TVNZ compares the low ratings for last year's campaign opening and closing statements with the high numbers who tuned in for its three leaders' debates, its election-night coverage and who used its online voting "compass" that allowed voters to compare their views of issues with those of parties.
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Commercial media which must worry about ratings and other audience measures are doing much better for democracy than political parties given free time for political broadcasts. The major parties hire ad agencies to design their offering but the results are usually dire. Last year National's had John Key in the kind of scripted performance he does not do well, while Labour's "creatives" put the front benchers in work clothes, gave them power tools and building gear and had them spout policy as they renovated a community centre.
Whether parties resort to cute productions or simply have their leaders talk earnestly to the camera, it's a turn-off. It looks and sounds contrived. When the larger parties' presentations can go on for 10 or 15 minutes and together they all take an hour of peak time, it is deadly television.
Democracy would be better served if election broadcasting restrictions went and parties had an allocation of public funds instead of conscripted TV time. They should be free to use their allocation in the way that will best reach their potential voters. They would quickly decide Saturday night prime time is not ideal for their purpose.
TVNZ should be relieved of this outdated obligation. It does a public service for democracy when it makes television people want to watch. Party political broadcasts have had their day.