It does not surprise me that Television New Zealand is in crisis. Ex-Broadcasting Minister Marian Hobbs and her ministry authored the crisis when it changed TVNZ's status from a state-owned enterprise to a Crown enterprise (allowing greater freedom for political interference), and introduced a "charter" to enshrine the principles of public service broadcasting.

The "charter" is a feel-good idea of little substance. Its worthy objectives were previously contained in TVNZ's statement of corporate intent. However, the charter compounded the structural tension that drives TVNZ; to operate with both commercial and public service priorities. As Ian Fraser said, an almost impossible task. So is it not time to scrap it and reconsider the role of public service broadcasting in New Zealand?

In the early years of broadcasting, the New Zealand Government controlled the airwaves and the content. The NZBC adopted Lord Reith's objectives for the BBC; to educate, inform and entertain. Lord Reith's ideas for public service broadcasting, formulated between the two World Wars, paid limited respect to popular appeal and were deeply suspicious of commercial influence in programming.

They made special provision for minority interests and for the expression of national interests. These were important ideas in 1930s Britain, but unnecessary to be encapsulated in broadcasting policy in New Zealand 70 years later.

Today, public service broadcasting is a mis-used term, conveniently meaning different things to different people. It is used in some circles to conjure up a warm glow of television the way it used to be; Kaleidoscope in prime time and heart-warming Telethons.

Dig a little deeper and public service broadcasting might mean programmes of interest to the educated classes who feel they shouldn't have to subscribe to the Arts Channel or CNN. Is TV3 not a public service? And Sky?

There are now multiple avenues to see minority, or niche, programming. The viewer will decide what he or she wants to watch, and competition will supply "quality". The only thing in the public interest that does require controlling, is the amount of local content on our screens. This is where Government should play a "public service" role.

New Zealand has too small a population base to provide sufficient ratings-driven commercial revenue to fund expensive local drama and documentaries of any quantity.

Other than ensuring that some infrastuctural requirements are in place, the Government's role should be limited to providing some tax-raised funding to allow for a minimum level of local content to be broadcast.

Also, it should ensure that the minimum level of local content is, in fact, broadcast. A quota system, used successfully in Australia, is now out of the question in New Zealand, due to various WTO agreements we have in place. However, the shareholding minister of a state-owned enterprise could include a minimum local content level in a SOE's statement of corporate intent. Ensuring this minimum was never eroded would be a fine role for the Government.

Other than this, the Government should butt out of television broadcasting and leave it to the industry.

So where to from here? Should TVNZ be sold, or leased?

Both these options are far too risky simply to solve this Government's present broadcasting problems. A sale would threaten the last remaining jewel in a very battered crown; TVNZ's world-class news and current affairs team. This group of broadcasting elite could be too easily and irretrievably lost, like so much else of value at TVNZ.

A sale would achieve a price tag of only a fraction of what could have been achieved several years ago, but the unfortunate experiment by this Government has eroded the earning power and thus the value of this taxpayer-owned asset.

Likewise, a lease to a private operator seems an overreaction.

A more simple solution stares us in the face; let this Government eat humble pie, admit its adventure into controlling TVNZ was a mistake, return the company to a state-owned enterprise, scrap the charter and erase the words "public service broadcasting" from any future guidelines, and include a minimum level of local content requirement in the statement of corporate intent.

The state should retain its decades of investment in TVNZ and unpick the debris of the recent experiment. Then, unencumbered by a public service charter, insulated from meddling politicians, but tasked with an adequately funded local content requirement, the TVNZ board and executive could focus on running a profitable and world-class broadcasting operation; something we had not too many years ago.

* Stephen McElrea is a marketing consultant who was a senior executive at TVNZ for many years and head of general and special interest programmes for both channels.