As most readers will know, TVNZ7 ends in June. The funding given to it by Labour was for an initial period (was never made permanent), in order for it to become self-funding, and National has not decided to give TVNZ a subsidy to keep it going.
I don’t think the channel itself matters, as we have dozens of channels in NZ, and the value associated with a channel is becoming much less in the Internet age. I do think though there were some programmes on TVNZ7 which it would be good to have continue on. The three which I associate with being public broadcasting are the Court Report, Media 7 and Backbenchers. Important issues get discussed in a reasoned way (well on two of them anyway!).
Most of the other shows on TVNZ7 are imported or the hourly news bulletins, which are hardly essential. So my focus is on the three programmes above. There is also The Good Word.
Now to have a sensible discussion on their future, we need to know how many people were watching them, and how much they cost.
Neilsen have not been contracted to report ratings for TVNZ7. I think this is disgraceful considering the $15m a year that was spent on it. It should be a requirement of any use of taxpayer funds for broadcasting that the viewer data be made publicly available.
However we can get some idea of ratings. TVNZ7 is included in an “other” category. This excludes Channels 1 to 4, Prime, MTS, Box and Sky channels. Now last week “other” during the time Media7 was on got 0.6% AUD%, which is around 24,000 viewers. This means the number of viewers was somewhere between 0 and 24,000.
These level of viewers makes it hard to justify taxpayer investment. Public broadcasting is not expected to rate like Shortland Street as it is not commercial. But it is expected to at least rate. You should be achieving at least 1% of the population. It is quite possible no show on TVNZ7 has ever achieved even a 1% audience. I don’t blame the shows for this – I think the three shows mentioned are well produced and very worthwhile. If anything I blame TVNZ for not promoting them on other channels. TVNZ use their 6 pm new slot to often promote Q+A. They didn’t do this for any of the stuff on TVNZ7. How often did a story on TVNZ7 get picked up on TVNZ news the next day? I can think of many that should have been (such as Jim Farmer QC’s comments on the Supreme Court on the Court Report). So TVNZ failed to promote TVNZ7 programmes enough.
Next you consider how much these programmes cost. Someone out there may know, and I would hope it is public information as they are taxpayer funded. NZ on Air publishes funding details of the programmes they fund. We should be able to easily look up what the TVNZ7 programmes cost.
But someone in the industry has estimated for me that those programmes would probably cost $10,000/hr to produce or $5,000 an episode. So that is $250,000 a year. *If* those prices are correct, that is not an unaffordable amount of money. Now NZ on Air allocates $80m a year of contestable funding towards NZ TV programmes. It is not impossible to imagine that they could find $750,000 a year to keep Media 7, Court Report and Backbenches on our screens. However the real problem is finding the broadcaster to agree to host them.
TVNZ is refusing (so far) to apply to NZ on Air to keep any of those programmes going. Why? Well they don’t want to screen them on TV1 or TV2 during a weeknight, as they would lose advertising revenue. I can understand that, but I don’t see why they couldn’t apply for them to be shown on a Saturday or Sunday?
But lets assume for now TVNZ won’t agree to broadcast them. What about other broadcasters? Well this could be an opportunity for Sky. They could apply for NZ on Air funding to show it on Prime or on Sky News. Politically it could be useful for Sky also to be doing more public good broadcasting (they also did election debates etc), as their future in a converged broadcasting and telecommunications market is scrutinised. Sky would also have the ability to promote the shows to get more viewers.
Another possibility is to make (for example) the Court Report an Internet broadcast. NZ on Air already fund some stuff over the Internet. The sort of people who watch the Court Report will tend to be Internet savvy, and many would happily subscribe to it and watch on their iPads or PCs.
So the issues are much much wider than just funding for TVNZ7. It is a complicated challenge. I’ve always been of the view that TVNZ can not be asked to be both a commercial broadcaster and a public service broadcaster. However that does leave opportunities for others.