Putting the Public Service TV Pot back on the boil

Television New Zealand and NZ On Air have managed to bring the pot of public broadcasting services back to the boil – one with its very commercial salaries, the other with more funding for “commercially attractive” local content.

TVNZ can’t afford to operate non-commercial television channels – but it can afford to pay commercially attractive salaries, with 10% of its staff earning more than $100,000, members of its top management and sales staff sharing bonuses totaling $1.8 million, and 32 employees wandering round with $10,000 credit cards. And in the real commercial world, it probably must.

Meanwhile, NZ On Air is freezing and squeezing budgets for special interest programmes that meet its statutory public broadcasting while it splashes out on more “commercially attractive” television productions. The $1.6 million local clone of British broadcaster Simon Cowell’s never-ending “The Globe’s Got Talent” show was first to cop the flak. Now, it’s a $419,000 injection of taxpayers’ funds into “The GC” – a glossy, virtual reality “documentary” series following the lives of nine carefully picked and groomed, successful young “Mozzies” [Maori – Australians] playing hard and “investing” in a Gold Coast town “full of resource-rich night life”. How much of this kind of flying Kiwi reality do we need?

It is all certainly enough to have Labour’s broadcasting spokesperson Clare Curran back at the barricades with a private member’s bill designed to require TVNZ to sustain non-commercial TVNZ 7 beyond its current expiry date in June. Curran wants the state-owned, now very commercial TVNZ to foot the bill - but would put the non-commercial public service channel under independent governance. She’s to be congratulated for getting the issue back in the public arena and, possibly, onto Parliament’s radar, but, unfortunately, her bill is not likely to alter the course of the government in office, even if it’s drawn for debate

In the middle of the muddle over the performance and  future of free-to-air broadcast television in New Zealand, it is time to have a clear statement of current Government broadcasting policy as we plunge on into the digital age.

It is hard to make sense of decisions that freeze funding for the public broadcasting service purchasing agencies NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho “for the foreseeable future” on one hand, while the other grants loans to MediaWorks and a few other commercial radio broadcasters – against Treasury advice - to soften the blow of $43 million worth of licence fees they all knew they were due to pay.

It is just as hard to make sense of government decisions that eliminate non-commercial channels to enable the investment in more advertising dependent channels in an over-crowded market, and to diminish the number of free-to-air, universally accessible channels to increase the number of pay-to-view channels like Kidzone24 and Heartland on Sky.

It is even harder to make sense of the mantra being adopted by Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss: this government is committed to supporting local content through NZ On Air, instead of directly funding single broadcasters.

If that’s the case, why can’t TVNZ 7 be funded through NZ On Air instead of directly by the Government? Why couldn’t that have happened with child and family-friendly non-commercial TVNZ 6 instead of allowing TVNZ to convert it into the youth-focused, advertising funded channel “U”? After all, that’s what happens with non-commercial Radio New Zealand, the operators of New Zealand's most popular radio station.

Is it simply that the Government wants to see local content on TV funded by the taxpayer solely on the basis of a contest between the commercial networks, because of some deep-rooted but unexpressed objection to the development of a non-commercial TV channel? Or has there simply been a lack of serious analysis about the value of public broadcasting services and the need to temper the dominance of commercial interests in the very public domain of broadcasting?

Under current policy, it is quite clear that the commercial networks are neither obliged nor inclined to deliver the full-range of public broadcasting services that NZ On Air is required by statute to support. The commercial broadcaster’s brief is comparatively simple: don’t break the law and deliver the maximum number of 18-49 year old active consumers to advertisers at least risk and lowest possible cost to generate optimum returns for the shareholder.

As commercial pressures mount, NZ On Air’s life is becoming increasingly difficult. It has been turning to the largely taxpayer-funded Maori Television Service to ensure that a series of documentaries with a Maori focus get a screening in New Zealand. Obviously, a series about nine Mozzies on the Gold Coast is more “commercially attractive” to our ad-chasing networks than the nine-part, $1.4 million “Pakipumeka” series on MTS that NZ On Air is funding about some real Maori contributors to New Zealand’s culture and identity.

While NZ On Air was splashing out on the Cowell clone show and the Gold Coast Mozzies, it has also been squeezing the less commercially attractive flagship newsmaker programmes Q+A and The Nation. In its December funding round, it cut The Nation’s budget by $233,000 and chipped in an extra $7,000 for Q+A. TVNZ obviously expected more: it subsequently reduced the schedule for Q+A this year by nine programmes. TV3 is maintaining its output at last year’s level. The result: we will have both networks’ most incisive current affairs programmes on deck for just 36 weeks out of 52 this year.

Our commercial networks are very good at delivering and protecting commercial value – but there are other values that don’t sit easily with their driving imperative to maintain the largest possible audience of most active consumers between their all-important advertising breaks.

The missing values I’m talking about are the democratic value of engaging audiences in the issues of the day by connecting citizens with the more participatory forms of central and local government that 21st century technology can support and a 21st century society will demand – the social value of exploring and expanding the common ground between the very diverse range of cultural and ethnic minorities within the fabric of our communities – and the educational value of enabling individuals to build their health, knowledge and work and social skills.

The transmission of these values is a core part of the broader brief of a public broadcasting service that is not driven by the drumbeat of an ad break every nine minutes. It will not happen in a New Zealand television broadcasting system that is so completely dominated by commercial interests that it ranked as the most dependent on advertising revenue and the second lowest in terms of government funding for public broadcasting purposes in a survey of 18 developed nations conducted by Nordicity three years ago.

I leave it to you to judge whether a television channel designed to advance these values is a public service we a “need to have”, or just a “want to have” luxury we currently can’t afford because we’re too busy paying for internationally franchised talent shows and Golden Mozzies. It’s certainly a debate we need to have.