We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: Is there a future for public broadcasting in New Zealand?
"An informed society is critical to the wellbeing of the society. I only see that coming from public service broadcasting"
Wise words spoken by a man who knows the world of broadcasting well. John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures, home to Shortland Street and one of our most successful commercial broadcasters, knows better than anyone that there is money to be made in television but, like most people in the industry, he also knows that there is power in broadcasting, and with that, responsibility.
Anyone of my generation will remember the massive journey that broadcasting has gone through in New Zealand, especially television. Over just a few decades we've seen the establishment of TVNZ as a state owned enterprise, significant deregulation, increased competition, and the entry of subscription based television. All of this has contributed to a blurring of the commercial and public broadcasting imperatives in New Zealand. I can hear the murmur: "Does any of this even matter? Shouldn't it just be about good programming?"
The simple answer is yes, but it should also be about 'us.' So much of the power of radio and television lies in its ability to reflect our culture; our values; our history. It's not just about entertainment, it's about informing and educating; all within a New Zealand context. And if we don't tell our stories, who will?
Let me be clear though: we're not talking about state broadcasting and government mandated messaging; the kind of thing Gaddafi had going with news anchors waving AK47s and shouting his name. In fact, it's the exact opposite. A healthy democracy requires a healthy media to keep its politicians in check and to call its business leaders to account, commercial broadcasting is often too compromised to do this reliably in the way a public broadcaster in both radio and television can, to keep us honest, informed and aware of the world around us.
That's not to undervalue the economic benefit of public broadcasting. Sure, making a New Zealand based screen production is more expensive than buying an American sitcom, but every dollar spent has an enormous spin off for our local screen industry which, in turn, ensures the viability of an otherwise sporadic industry: film.
Agreeing that we need public broadcasting is one thing; how we deliver it is another. Labour has not been faultless in this respect. By the early 2000s it was obvious that TVNZ wasn't necessarily fulfilling its public broadcaster function. The then Minister of Broadcasting responded with a formal Charter, setting out the kind of broadcast content that should be provided, but all the while requiring that TVNZ continue to return a dividend to Government. It proved to be a difficult mixed model. We then went a step further though, establishing the commercial free TVNZ6 and 7. Some commentators took the view, rightly or wrongly, that this may lead to all public broadcasting imperatives shifting to these stations.
Labour may not have got the model entirely right, but there is no doubt that we knew and continue to believe entirely in the role of public broadcasting as a key pillar in a democratic society. The National Government, on the other hand, seems intent on cutting that pillar in two.
This year, National announced that TVNZ would no longer be subject to a charter or have any public broadcasting imperatives whatsoever. TVNZ 6 has gone, with some of its children shows hocked off to Sky. And TVNZ7, our only commercial free television station with some fantastic locally grown shows, serious news, political criticism, arts and minority programming, will cease to exist next year.
And then there's Radio New Zealand, a broadcaster we can truly be proud of. It has been internationally recognised and is viewed by many as a national treasure, yet it has suffered under the pressure of under-investment. Before leaving Government, Labour instigated a review by KPMG, which basically told us that RNZ was struggling. Staff were poorly resourced and under paid and the regional coverage was starting to suffer. The report recommended additional resourcing to make up this deficit, which Labour kicked off. When National took office, not only was this additional funding cancelled, Radio New Zealand's funding was frozen and noises made about cutting regional programming, or bringing in commercial sponsorship, essentially gutting its public broadcaster status.
If you're worried about the future of Radio New Zealand, you should be. Nothing I have heard uttered by the Minister of Broadcasting gives me any confidence that he believes it's necessary, for the integrity of RNZ, to keep it free from commercial imperatives and the compromise that brings.
The National Governments' priorities leave some big questions over where to from here. Do we accept that TVNZ stopped being a public broadcaster years ago and just turn a blind eye while it is sold off by National? Do we stand by while RNZ is slowly eroded?
For me, it's high time we drew a line in the sand. We may not have figured out all the answers yet, but the most important question is still very simple. Do we believe in the importance of our own identity or not? If we do, then we have to fight for public broadcasting. .
Labour will release its broadcasting policy soon, but in the meantime the battle to retain TVNZ7 and Radio New Zealand must continue. Public broadcasting may come at a small cost, but the price of losing them is huge, for all of us.
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How we view television and its content has changed remarkably in recent years. Technology has also changed the landscape with people now viewing content on mobile phones, laptops and iPads via the internet. People are choosing much more personalised content from multiple sources and watching it at times that suit them. As someone who is constantly on the move, this portability of content allows me to stay in touch with current issues as they develop. This government's view is that public money should be channelled into making programmes, not the platform on which they are delivered. Our focus is on funding content and allowing the public to choose how they want to watch it.
National is committed to good quality public broadcasting - the provision of information and entertainment for the various audiences within New Zealand. Public broadcasting provides an opportunity to reflect and explore aspects of New Zealand life, and provoke or challenge our thinking. Public money should fund the best possible content for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. We believe that quality and diversity in local content is best provided through contestable funding which promotes competition for quality, content diversity and the availability of programming across multiple channels and platforms.
In the past year, more than $81 million of contestable funding was made available through NZ On Air for locally made television. The Platinum Fund, which was launched in 2009, provides $15 million in contestable funding for New Zealand television content. This funding gives priority to high-end drama, current affairs, documentaries and special event programming - material that is generally considered to be public broadcasting programming. Some programmes that received Platinum funding last year include: the current affairs show Q&A, Billy - a docudrama on the life of Billy T James; and Wild Coasts - a documentary series on New Zealand's coastlines. As a New Zealander, I'm proud to see the quality of television content that has been produced with this funding.
The Government's public broadcasting spending also extends to funding Radio New Zealand, community radio and television stations and Maori Television. New Zealand music is heavily supported through this funding, while the Freeview digital television service, The National Pacific Radio Trust, and archiving television and radio content are also covered.
We are presiding over one of the most difficult economic times in New Zealand's history - the collapse of the finance companies, the global financial crisis, and the Canterbury earthquakes. This year the Government has been borrowing heavily to take the rough edges off the recession for the vulnerable. Against this challenging backdrop the Government had to make a decision about whether or not to continue to fund the commercial-free digital Television New Zealand (TVNZ) channels TVNZ6 and TVNZ7.
Back in 2006 the previous government allocated TVNZ time-limited funding of $79 million to establish and run two digital channels for six years to encourage people to make the switch to the digital TV platform Freeview. TVNZ 7 was unfunded beyond then. We are well on target to achieving the switch over to digital, with eight in ten New Zealand homes already making the switch, and the analogue frequency is due to be turned off in November 2013.
It's important to note that initially TVNZ believed channels 6 and 7 would be self-sustaining after six years. Since then the global financial crisis has hit the television and wider media industry hard with a steep drop in advertising revenue. It's also important to note that the only new spending in this year's budget went to health and education. State agencies and government funded sectors are being asked to live within their budgets - there's no new money.
The question is, do we fund more programmes with local content or put money into a channel's infrastructure? The Government's preference is to fund more programmes on a contestable basis and let consumers choose how want to view them from the various platforms available. This approach delivers New Zealand stories on screen while taking a careful approach with taxpayers' money.
When looking at our state-owned broadcaster, Television New Zealand, the Government introduced legislation to give it a clear direction and the best opportunity to become a successful digital media company. The television New Zealand Amendment Bill was passed in July 2011. It removed TVNZ's charter obligations and freed up its archived programmes for re-screening. The bill replaced the TVNZ charter with a less prescriptive list of functions, and leaves TVNZ free to determine its own priorities.
TVNZ continues to provide broadcasting services to all New Zealanders and TVNZ will continue to feature content of a public service character as part of its total output. This is being achieved by TVNZ continuing to have access to NZ On Air funding. National's commitment to our other state broadcaster, RNZ, also remains and, despite various claims, funding to RNZ has not been cut. Like all other state-funded agencies and departments, RNZ has been asked to live within its $37 million budget and provide a sustainable funding plan for the coming years. RNZ has delivered on that plan and is still producing the quality news and programming for which it is well known.
As technology develops into the future, people will have more choice about what content they want to consume. Amongst that content we are committed to New Zealanders having their voices heard and stories told.
Do you have a topic you would like Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern to tackle? Email us