Regional television has been on a downward spiral for many years. During that time, failed stations have littered the landscape. Stratos joined the list just before Christmas, ending four years on the air. Now, there are predictions that the slender financial underpinning of many other regional channels means they will not survive the digital switchover. If so, their passing will be mourned only by the few viewers who have been attracted by their fare in recent times.

Regional channels now have access to free frequencies. But they will have to pay state-owned transmission company Kordia for digital ones. The Government has given about $70,000 to each of the 18 regional channels to deal with the digital transition. Regional TV promoters say this is nowhere near enough.

But their pleas for more funding are almost certain to fall on deaf ears. As much is indicated by the way the Government's increasingly commercially focused broadcasting policy has led to the imminent demise of TVNZ7, Television New Zealand's only non-commercial public service channel.

It will become a shopping channel this year, having attracted just over 200,000 viewers a week. That number could never justify the station's $15 million cost.

The Government has said, effectively, that it will not back public television beyond Maori TV and New Zealand On Air. Privately-owned stations face the prospect of standing largely on their own feet or sinking.

That is an uncomfortable proposition for many of them. Virtually every time a regional channel has failed, the promoters have chosen to blame a lack of government financial support.

Rarely mentioned has been the widespread public indifference to what they offered. Rarely mentioned, either, was how much it would cost to run a profitable regional station that drew and retained a sizeable audience.

Television is an expensive enterprise. If a channel is to attract advertising and market itself effectively, it must have a strong sales team. If it is to be a credible source of news, it must employ a solid team of trained journalists.

And only if it satisfies these two criteria will it be in a position to provide the quality of programmes that attracts viewers and good ratings.

Regional channels, most of which operate on a shoestring, have rarely enjoyed such luxuries and have, therefore, called regularly on governments for financial backing.

They justify such appeals by suggesting their news-gathering, in particular, is important in holding the likes of local authorities and hospitals to account. In addition, they provide a forum for debates on local issues.

But their claim can be valid only if other media outlets are not doing the same things - that there is, effectively, a gap in the communications landscape.

This is not so. Other arms of the media, notably radio and community newspapers, cover the same areas. Community access radio, a far less expensive proposition, has become far more important and effective in this field in recent years.

That, in itself, suggests one reason why many regional TV channels struggle to overcome public indifference. Equally, despite the mainstream channels' commercial thrust, it remains in their interest to screen locally made current affairs programmes and documentaries. Regional channels struggle to match their quality.

If many fail, it will not be because the Government has left them high and dry. It will be because their profitability and resources are insufficient to manage the cost of the digital switchover.

And that carries its own commentary on their place and importance in the modern media environment.