So long, Seven – It’s been good to know you

TVNZ 7 gave us a glimpse of what a real public television service could be. Our last nationwide, non-commercial TV channel is off the air. Even Kim Dotcom turned out with the thousand Aucklanders who marched to mourn its passing last night. So what’s next?

Here’s a big declaration of interest for starters. I am now driving the formation of a new, not-for-profit trust to establish a nationwide, free-to-air, public television service.

It’s a move I’ve been delaying until the demise of non-commercial TVNZ 7 was finally determined. That happened as of midnight July 30, 2012. TVNZ 7 is off the air. One + 1 replaces it. Wow! I hope they haven’t got the transmissions synchronised so I can’t see all those wonderful ads on One a second time, an hour later, without the noxious 9 minute programme breaks. Yeah,right.

The disappearance of TVNZ 7 signals the completion of TVNZ’s transformation into TCTV – Totally Commercial Television.

For six years, as chairman of NZ On Air under both a National-led government and a Labour-led government, I confronted the difficulties of striking the balance between the commercially-driven interest of our major television networks and the public interest mission. It was tough enough in 1995-2001. It will be even tougher now.

All TVNZ’s public interest commitments have been extinguished. The pressure is on for more NZ On Air funding to support “commercially attractive” New Zealand programmes - like the UK-held franchise show “New Zealand’s Got Talent”, or “The GC”, the docu-drama produced by a New Zealand subsidiary of Amsterdam-based Eyeworks Holdings, or the Australian-inspired  production “Underbelly NZ”.

Commercially-attractive local content is very expensive. Last year, NZ On Air paid on average $577,000 an hour to produce New Zealand drama. You can buy a bucket-load of second-hand  drama and entertainment imports from Australia, America, and the UK for that kind of money. This is Totally Commercial Television’s big bargaining chip in their play for more funding from NZ On Air.

The impact of the TCTV game is painfully obvious. The proportion of NZ On Air funded first-run [original] local content on screen from  our six major TV channels fell to just 14% last year from 21% the year before. Advertisers funded around 86% of the New Zealand content you saw on the major nets last year.

The decline in NZ On Air funded content is expected to continue because of the funding freeze. The total hours of local content funded by NZ On Air are expected to fall from 981 hours last year to 878 hour this year, and are forecast to be 851.5 hours next year – down more than 16.6%. Over the same period, NZ On Air costs per hour of local content will escalate from $82,310 last year, to $88,875 this year, and jump to $93,275 next year – an increase of more than 13% over the three year period.

The main drivers of NZ On Air funding costs are two “commercially attractive” genre: NZ On Air’s drama and comedy costs per hour are expected to increase by more than 24% between 2010 and next year. At the same time, hours of NZ On Air funded hours of local drama and comedy on screen are expected to fall by more than 25%.

The explanation for the decline in NZ On Air’s influence on the level of local content you see on screen is obvious. It’s taking more and more NZ On Air money to fund commercially attractive New Zealand drama and comedy shows, while the rising NZ$ exchange rate drives the cost of imported content down and down. Consequently, Totally Commercial Television’s opportunity costs are rising.

You can buy a bucket-load of appealing second-hand drama imports from Australia, America, and the UK for the $647,000 it cost NZ On Air to fund Underbelly NZ or the $531,000 it contributed to an hour of The Almighty Johnsons.

Every “commercially attractive” programme NZ On Air funds de-risks the business of Totally Commercial TV when it puts original, untested, made-in-New Zealand content on the air instead of a low-cost, proven imported product. But de-risking TCTV, also diminishes NZ On Air’s ability to deliver its broader public broadcasting mission. We need to stop now and ask a question about NZ On Air’s real purpose.

Totally Commercial Television has a clear and simple mission: build audiences of active consumers who generate business for advertisers who generate profits for the shareholder.

The public broadcasting mission is much more complex: its purpose is to add value to all our lives – regardless of our age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, geographic location, or our consumption habits. Real public broadcasting enhances education, promotes health, encourages participation in public life, builds understanding between majorities and minorities, and constantly engages with its audiences. We don’t see much of that on TCTV.

We need a dedicated, non-commercial, free-to-air, public broadcasting TV channel, to put some balance back into our TV diet, to take some of the commercial pressure off NZ On Air, and to secure important components of the broader public broadcasting service mission from the vagaries of the advertising market.

No other country in the developed world relies solely on the good will of advertising-funded, free-to-air commercial television broadcasters to deliver the public interest values that define the public broadcasting mission.

A UMR Research poll conducted at the end of May – before the Save TVNZ 7 campaign really hit its straps – found 51% of New Zealanders support the proposition that the government should provide $15 million a year to fund a channel providing a wide range of New Zealand and international programmes and minimal advertising. Support for the Save 7 petition and the turnouts at town meetings across the country show there’s a growing ground swell of support for change.

The challenge now is to show the government that it can be done – without adding to its total broadcasting and culture costs, and in ways that can add value to its spend on education, health and welfare.

Myles Thomas and his Save 7 campaigners and my hard-working colleagues at Auckland’s not-for-profit regional channel Triangle Television inspire me to get off my backside. Myles and his supporters are forming a new organisation to continue the campaign for better broadcasting. I’m establishing a not-for-profit Trust to raise the funds required to set up a bare-bones, non-commercial, nationwide channel to fill the public TV broadcasting role that TVNZ 7 has vacated. We’ll work together to keep the momentum for change growing.

 We’ll be looking for support from corporate sponsors, public interest charities, community organisations, individual philanthropists, education and health service providers, cultural institutions and community organisations, minority and special interest groups.  – people who can see the public benefits from a small, Kiwi adaption of the American Public Broadcasting Service [PBS]model.

And that’s enough of the advertising. For now...