Stratos is dead - who's next?

The death of Stratos Television last week is a sad, bad story – and we have not seen the end of it.

At 11:00am on Friday, 23 December, Stratos Television vanished quietly from the programme menus offered by the Sky, Freeview, and Telstra Clear distribution networks.

Stratos was just over four years old – an off-spring from New Zealand’s first non-commercial, regional television channel, Auckland-based Triangle Television. It was conceived as the gateway for Triangle, and other allied regional channels, to achieve safe passage through the transition from analogue to digital transmission, and as a vehicle for delivering a multi-cultural mix of New Zealand and international programmes constructed to meet the needs of major ethnic groups within the country.

With its passing, we are losing one of the most significant options for sustaining the delivery of the public broadcasting services that New Zealand’s major, commercially-driven, free-to-air television networks are increasingly unable and unwilling to provide.

The demise of Stratos also puts Auckland’s regional channel at risk. Triangle will continue to broadcast key elements of the Stratos programme content to its Auckland viewers on UHF channel 41 while its community trust owners seek other ways to survive the digital switchover in 2013.

The Stratos death notice on the channel’s website simply states that “transmission costs coupled with the economic environment and general lack of support at all levels has meant that it simply could not survive.” There is much more to the story than that.

As a contributor to programmes on Stratos, and a long-term advocate for regional television, I don’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs of the channel’s problems, but I can say Stratos did not die of lack of support from its audience.

The channel was reaching a cumulative audience of more than a million New Zealanders every month, and the numbers were growing steadily. Its website is now filled with 46 pages of supportive messages from viewers mourning its loss. The National Business Review on-line coverage of the channel’s closure attracted more than 90 responses, mostly supportive, within 48 hours.

Stratos did not die from lack of community support. In partnership with Triangle, it had built a relationship with more than 30 distinct ethnic and cultural communities across the Auckland region, and, through them, throughout the country. 25 Auckland-based individuals and organizations were directly involved in funding and creating special interest programmes for screening on Triangle and Stratos in the last year.

Stratos did not die from lack of staff support. Its full-time staff of six, supported by community volunteers, pumped out two TV channels, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from a little villa in Grey Lynn. Last year, they produced 250 hours of first-run local programme content, at an average cost of $2,500 an hour. It costs NZ On Air nearly $74,000 an hour to fund comparable, special interest programme content on one of the major television networks. Sure, Triangle and Stratos produce no-frills TV – but a substantial number of New Zealand viewers seem ready to accept substance over style.

In my view, Stratos died – and other small, and not-so-small, free-to-air TV channels will also die – in the bureaucratically-botched transition to digital broadcasting because public broadcasting policy is no longer aligned with public need, or the multi-media realities of the digital age.

The cracks started showing back in 1997, when non-commercial regional television was introduced. It was supposed to provide coverage of local news and events, a local voice and perspective, a diverse range of content and formats for different audiences and interests, and facilitate “wide technical, cultural and social access to broadcasting” – all very laudable aims, re-addressing tasks the increasingly centralized and commercialized TVNZ found irksome. A new area of public broadcasting service had been defined. Unfortunately, no additional public funding had been provided.

It was 2005 before the Government recognized the problem and funded NZ On Air to provide some support for regional television. It was set at $1.5 million per annum – less than the sum provided for about the same number of community radio stations – and has remained frozen at that level ever since. The maximum sum provided to any individual regional channel has never been more than the cost of two and a half hours of documentaries on a major network.

Regional television was plumped firmly in the too hard basket by both NZ On Air and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Two research reports commissioned by NZ On Air from independent analysts Paul Norris and Brian Pauling - on the digital future and its own performance - have studiously avoided any mention of this troubled sector of television broadcasting.

Regional television was also tail-end Charley in the MoCH consultations on the digital switch over – a process that contributed to the problems of Stratos. From the outset, Stratos was seen as the vehicle that could facilitate the transition of regional channels from analogue to digital transmission, and – like TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 – a fresh inducement to encourage viewers to make switch. In July 2007, Kordia, the state-owned transmission provider, announced it was “partnering” with Triangle Television to launch Stratos on the Freeview platform. It was a step that enabled Triangle to leverage Sky into making a similar arrangement.

Two years later, the MoCH finally initiated consultations with regional TV broadcasters on options for making the transition to digital transmission. It canvassed the concept of using Stratos as a means of aggregating their local programmes for nationwide transmission so they could maintain a relationship with local viewers switching from analogue to digital reception during the transition to DSO. After the consultation, regional broadcasters were advised that the Cabinet was prepared to commit up to $600,000 a year towards the satellite costs of “the regional content broadcaster” until DSO was completed in 2013.

In October last year, regional broadcasters were suddenly informed that the Cabinet had changed its mind. NZ On Air is now funded to offer up to $70,000 to each regional broadcaster to help them find their own way into the new digital world. To date, two regional broadcasters have accepted. The low take-up is hardly surprising, given that the digital switchover will quadruple their transmission costs – their major expense – if their programmes are to be accessible on all the digital platforms their local audiences are likely to adopt.

Now, Stratos is gone. It is a sad, bad story – and we have not heard the end of it.

Declaration of interest: David Beatson has been host of programmes on Stratos and Triangle Television, acted as an advocate for the New Zealand Regional Television Broadcasters Association, and is a former chairman of NZ On Air.