Public broadcasting has not been my cup of tea. It serves a privileged section of society who have the cultural and political power to demand that everyone pay for the radio and television the privileged prefer.
As a journalist who has spent my career in the private sector, I've found it particularly galling when public broadcasting claims to be essential to an informed democracy. No newspaper proprietor has ever tried to influence what I do or directed editorial decisions as far as I'm aware. And I have worked fairly close to editors.
At the same time, the commercial imperative to retain an audience has been a healthy grounding discipline and a constant force for improvement. I think profit-focused management and competition in the media serves democracy very well.
But in the age of the internet I think public broadcasting may be more valuable than it has ever been – so long as governments realise what its role should be. This Government does not.
Last week its broadcasting minister, Kris Faafoi, announced it had engaged business consultants to look into the merits of merging Radio New Zealand - RNZ as it prefers - with TVNZ. Nobody seems to understand why you would do this. People who understand broadcasting much better than I do are mystified.
RNZ is a pure public broadcaster, sustained by taxpayers. TVNZ is a fully commercial operation that pays its way with advertising and is supposed to pay a dividend to its sole shareholder, the Government. It is not clear whether the merged entity would be more like RNZ or TVNZ.
I think we need it to be more like RNZ but all the evidence points to it going the other way. The Labour Party came to power with a policy to boost RNZ's multi-media services including video online. Now the Government obviously thinks it might be more sensible the combine its radio and TV companies.
TVNZ announced last year that it would not be paying dividends to the Government for a while largely because it wants to invest the money in its online operation providing video on demand. The Government appears to have accepted this, completely ignoring appeals from TV3 that it cannot compete with a rival that no longer has to pay a dividend.
TV3 has been put on sale and unless a buyer appears we may well lose our only independent free-to-air, content creating channel this year. TVNZ, though, is more worried about competition from Netflix for young viewers who don't watch much, if any, broadcast television. And worse, for TV3, TVNZ has decided to use advertising rather than subscriptions to finance its video on demand.
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All media sustained by advertising are now competing with global networks that pay nothing for poached content and use their commercial reach to devastating effect on the earnings of content creators as well as their ability to retain an audience. Faafoi sounds as worried as any media manager facing a declining audience. Need he be?
It may be time to remember the purpose of public broadcasting. It was not to compete for a mass audience, it was to provide worthy and important information and cultural services that might not otherwise be available. But even more important, it was a national reference point.
The National Programme, as RNZ used to be known, was valued by people whether they listened to it or not, because it was there. It was a reliable, authoritative voice for the whole country. TVNZ, when it started, was a single channel, the only channel available. Everyone watched its news, everyone chuckled about the same comedy next day.
Those days are long gone and we have lost something. Without a common reference point we are informed and entertained by self-chosen websites and while we can share that material with friends, or with the world if we like, and the sites even tell us how many people have shared the item, it's not the same.
Commercial news services have no choice. They must go where their audience is going if they are to survive. Public broadcasting does not face the same imperative. It has the luxury of doing what it does best.
It seems to me pointless for TVNZ to be offering movies on demand in competition with Netflix. If the point is to ensure local productions funded by NZ on Air can actually get on air then let the funder post them on its site.
Let TVNZ be a tax-funded public television channel (One would be enough) more like RNZ and jointly managed by all means. Sell TV2 to real demanding shareholders and let TV3 compete with it for the broadcast advertising still available.
A single public channel could concentrate on news, current affairs and good extended interviews we no longer get from TVNZ. It might be surprised how many watch.