Rugby row raises bigger TV issues

Ructions over free-to-air television coverage of the Rugby World Cup raise major questions about the sustainability of New Zealand’s approach to public broadcasting

It had to happen sooner or later – and rugby is just the issue to get New Zealanders exercised about the $230 million worth of taxpayers’ funds being spent annually to provide us with public broadcasting services.

People are more than muttering about the rights and wrongs of two State-backed broadcasters competing with each other for the right to screen free-to-air coverage of Rugby World Cup 2011. So they should be.

TVNZ, the Maori Television Service, and tag-along TV3 may settle their differences this week and frame a new joint bid to share free-to-air coverage of the world’s most prestigious rugby contest. But the story will not end there.

The International Rugby Board has already rejected one joint bid from our free-to-air TV broadcasters. Maybe, they will be attracted by a higher price on another. That is for them to decide.

The important thing to recognize is that this is far from a done deal, and the way it has been handled so far raises serious questions about the joint abilities of our broadcasters, our public broadcasting services administrators, and our governing politicians to bring it off.

This is no one-off problem. A systemic flaw has developed in our current system of purchasing television programmes and services that the public want but commercially-driven broadcasters will not or cannot provide. Unless it is corrected, it will happen again and again.

The problem starts at the top. We currently have a melee of ministers, officials, and agencies with overlapping responsibilities, all trying to convert the Rugby World Cup into an international showcase event that will generate, perhaps, half a billion dollars worth of gain for New Zealand.

The list starts with Murray McCully, the Minister for Rugby World Cup 2011, his associate cup minister Gerry Brownlee, Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman, New Zealand broadcasting’s funding Minister Chris Finlayson, Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, and his associate minister with special responsibility for Maori broadcasting, Georgina Te Heuheu.

It is simplistic to lay the blame for the mess solely on the politicians. They are supposed to be supported by officials – at Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and the Ministry for Economic Development – who are responsible for advising on the development of public broadcasting policy and accountable for its implementation.

Between these officials and the broadcasters sit two agencies that are supposed to hold decision-making responsibilities for allocating government funds provided to purchase public broadcasting programmes and services – Te Mangai Paho and NZ On Air.

These frontline funding agencies were created for a very good reason – to ensure the decisions on which programmes or services will receive State support are made at arm’s length from the governing politicians of the day by a well-defined, rational, consistent and transparent process.

However, their activities are rarely coordinated. Politicians and broadcasters are often tempted cut the funding agencies out of the loop and short-circuit the funding process.

This is not the first time it has happened. Labour did it with the ill-fated TVNZ charter funding arrangement. National wrapped up the charter deal – but compounds another Labour error by continuing preferential direct funding of new TVNZ digital television services on the Freeview platform. The Minister of Maori Affairs also sidelined the normal Maori broadcasting funding process by brokering a special direct funding arrangement between his Ministry and the Maori Television Service.

When the IRB rejected the first joint bid from our major networks for the New Zealand free-to-air broadcasting rights to RWC 2011 in March, and when SKY won the global host broadcaster and Pay-TV rights a month later, it was evident that a special funding intervention could be required to secure free-to-air television coverage of a major international sports event that is already being heavily underwritten by New Zealand taxpayers.

It is no secret that our major free-to-air, advertiser-funded television broadcasters have been cash-strapped by the recession and the additional costs they confront by having to simulcast in three transmission modes during New Zealand’s transition to the new digital broadcasting technology.

The Maori Television Service and Te Puni Kokiri obviously read the signals and saw an opportunity. They deserve to be congratulated for their initiative and the creative thinking shown in their well-developed case.

By contrast, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage – which not only has responsibility for funding NZ On Air to purchase public broadcasting services, but also the specific task of encouraging cultural tourism around the Rugby World Cup – still seems to be asleep at the wheel.

It is time to wake up. We have no assurance that the issues jeopardizing our access to free-to-air coverage of the Rugby World Cup are resolved. We have yet to consider the implications of TVNZ’s decision to relinquish rights to cover the Commonwealth Games next year, or those of SKY’s success in securing rights to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Sport is an important dimension of New Zealand culture – but it is slipping steadily out of the public domain on television, because our system for funding public broadcasting services is not capable of dealing with entirely predictable market failures in the commercially-focused, free-to-air television environment that we have created.

We need to fix the systemic flaws exposed by the Rugby World Cup fiasco, instead of dismissing it as just another accident of sloppy political process.

Declaration of interest: David Beatson is a former chairman of NZ On Air, and currently hosts a programme on Stratos-Triangle Television that receives NZ On Air funding.