ODT Editorial on National Broadcasting

The editorialises on ’s policy:

was to operate a dual mandate.

It was required to make market returns to the Government in the fiercely competive ratings-driven commercial environment, but it would be expected to make and screen Charter programmes.

For this, it would receive an annual hand-out in the region of $15 million – in addition to the contestable funds already allocated to New Zealand on Air for local content.

There are those who have long said that such a system was doomed to failure – that the two aims were so incompatible it could only end in tears.

Among them was former CEO Ian Fraser.

End in tears it has.

Whatever is to be made of the National Party’s new broadcasting “policy”, it has to be said that in the nine years it has had to get public broadcasting policy right, Labour-led administrations have singularly failed to do so.

It has been a failure. Ask anyone in TVNZ. The status quo is not viable, regardless of who is in Government.

The first of these, perhaps more profound in its implications than in its impact, is that TVNZ will be freed from its Charter shackles. The $15 million alotted to it specifically for its charter programming will go into the contestable New Zealand on Air fund for local programming – available to a range of independent producers.

Critics have pointed out that this can only mean a reduction of an already sparse complement of “blue-chip” Charter material – the high-cost documentaries, history series, and arts programmes.

Except that charter money did not always or arguably even often go towards these.

And that eventually, in effect, the “State” broadcaster would become another commercial channel like any other.

They also argue that with a less stringent mandate, more of the contestable funding will find its way on to the screens in the form of low-cost local content of the “reality TV” variety.

Others maintain that the funds will still be there for the same sorts of programmes, only TVNZ will no longer have preferential access to it.

Indeed. It will be just like the rest of the NZ on Air money – allocated on quality of proposal regardless of who is the broadcaster.

So under National’s policy it is a little unclear in what way this State asset will remain a public broadcaster – and exactly how the free-to-air digital channels TVNZ 6 and 7, with their predominance of local content, will be funded when the currently allocated money – $79 million – runs out in 2012; and, that being the case, why the company should remain in public ownership at all.

TVNZ at present isn’t a public broadcaster on One and Two. They are a 95% commercial broadcaster. I don’t think there is a lot of halfway house between being a public broadcaster and a commercial broadcaster. That is why I would like to see TV2 get sold as fully commercial and look at merging TV One, into one public broadcaster.

As for TV6 and TV7, I imagine they will be evaluated at the time on how successful they have been.

Given the paucity of detail in the policy, opponents, including Broadcasting Minister Trevor Mallard, have been able to revive the spectre of a lean commercially driven TVNZ being fattened up for eventual sale.

Heh I think Trevor would have been suggesting that no matter what the policy.

The second directive that might sound warning bells for those who like their radio waves unadorned by the jingle of cash registers is the “regular publication of rating/audience/household penetration data for any broadcasting entity receiving state funding”.

This may be harmless enough, but, again, in the absence of any qualifying explanation, inferences, rightly or wrongly, may be drawn: public radio – that is to say Radio New Zealand – could be held to account against the sort of ratings and audience share it receives.

There are two issues here. The first is the right of the public to know how many people are listening to the programmes they are paying for with their taxes. The second is how that information is used.

I don’t think there is any acceptable reason for the taxpayer to not know how many people listen or view to the programmes they fund,

And the fear must be that commercial models will be used to evaluate performance.

Of course, the very point of public radio is that it should operate free of such considerations across a spectrum of genres and programmes that are ignored as uneconomic by commercial radio.

This is too simplistic a view. National Radio may not have advertising, which means all programmes are in theory uneconomic. But it is useful to know how many people listen to a programme. If a programme costs $500,000 a year and has only 500 people listen to it then one may be able to deliver better radio to more people with a programme that costs $700,000 and has 10,000 people listen to it. Ratings are not the only measurement for public broadcasting – but they are *one* of them.

Certainly, it is in the medium of radio that arguably the starkest differences between commercial and public imperatives emerge.

For few of the core activities of Radio New Zealand – documentaries, classical music, current affairs, in-depth interviews, and the magazine formats of shows such as those presided over by Kim Hill, Chris Laidlaw, Kathryn Ryan and Jim Mora – would survive under the fiscal ruler of the market.

But many would argue they constitute the very heart of public broadcasting and, as such, perform a vital role in sustaining the nation’s intellectual and cultural capital.

But if no-one is listening to them, they are not performing any role.

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