Hard News by Russell Brown


Reading the Numbers

It's gratifying to see that former Broadcasting minister Jonathan Coleman has belatedly admitted that the audience numbers he gave out for TVNZ 7 were false -- and not surprising to hear that the decision to end the channel's funding was not actually based on evidence as to how many people watched it.

Danya Levy's story is based on papers obtained under the Official Information Act and it further reveals that officials did take to heart Media7's explanation of the hapless maths behind the error:

Officials took steps to ensure Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss, who took over the portfolio in December, would not make the same mistake.

In a memo in March, officials warn: "Cumulative figures cannot be divided to provide weekly audience figures as people only get counted once in the month, so a straight division of four will misrepresent viewer numbers."

The memo also notes TVNZ7's cumulative monthly audience increased to 1.47 million in the week beginning December 25, up from 1.40 million the month before, and a big rise on 863,100 a year earlier.

According to Levy, "the only figure officially provided to Dr Coleman was that Channel 6 and TVNZ7 together had a monthly audience of 2.1 million," but I'm still sure that they arrived at their bogus number by performing indignities on Nielsen's reported cume of 827,800 viewers of TVNZ 7 for the four weeks beginning on the 23rd of January 2011.

Now we only have to convince Mike Hosking. Which may be a somewhat more onerous task.

Levy's story also confirms something that escaped me for a long time: that $70 million of the $79 million put up for TVNZ 6 and 7 by the last Labour government actually took the form of a special dividend from TVNZ itself. As I understand it (and I'd be happy to be corrected), TVNZ raised a loan to that amount, gave the money to the government and was drip-fed it back over five years. Effectively, the funding was money foregone in dividends by the government. (Although even that's not quite the whole picture, given that part of that money has been recaptured by TVNZ in facilities hire.)

There has been further trouble with numbers in the wake of the Budget. John Key yesterday told the Dominion Post that sharp cuts in the funding of technology teachers (that is, woodwork and the like) for intermediate schools had gone "too far":

Some of those schools, which cater to year seven and year eight pupils, would lose a lot of funding under the changes because of a specific funding formula for technology teachers that focused on intermediates was being spread across years two to 10.

Mr Key admitted the formula was confusing.

"I think it's fair to say there are some hard edges for a small number of schools and the Government is looking to see how it can take the pressure off those hard edges," he said.

As Labour's Grant Robertson tartly noted on Twitter last night, Key spoke as if he were describing something he'd seen on TV, rather than his own government's new Budget.

It took until yesterday for the problem to become clear because both journalists and Opposition members had to wait for the people who understood the impact of the change -- principals at the schools themselves -- to sound the alarm.

It didn't help that the vehicle put forward as a replacement for printed copies of the Budget -- the app for iOS and Android -- was basically an electronic brochure for the government. The app worked well enough, but in no way constituted a replacement for the actual Budget document. Treasury made structured data available -- the data just weren't published.

The only way I was able to drill even one layer deep into, say, the Arts, Culture and Recreation budget was to use Keith Ng's Budget visualisation, which presented the structured data. Designed to provide basic data at a glance, it actually provided more depth than any other resource of which I'm aware. 

Keith will be joining us on Media7 this week, to discuss the numbers and their presentation alongside New Zealand Herald business editor Liam Dann. The language and style of the Budget will be covered by Sean Plunket and David Slack.

I know, I know: killer lineup. If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's recording, present yourself at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ 7 some time between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.


And finally, appropos of nothing above, I have a double pass for each of Thursday and Friday nights' performancse of Anders Falstie-Jensen's much-praised play Standstill at Q Theatre. Click the envelope icon below and email me with "Standstill", along with your preference for Thursday or Friday. I'll draw winners later today.

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