Hard News by Russell Brown


Television and the Public Good

We return to the topic of public service broadcasting -- and its steady fading from view -- on Media7 this week.

Our guests are Rachel Cunliffe, co-founder of the TV community Throng (and also a statistician, which might be helpful), longtime Film Commission marketing director Lindsay Shelton, and Peter Bell, president of the New Zealand Screen Directors' Guild, who recently wrote this letter to The Listener, laying down a challenge to the new Broacasting minister, Craig Foss, to save public broadcasting "[which] is not a right- or left-wing issue, it is a matter of national importance to keep New Zealanders informed."

Bell's letter  drew a response in the same letters column (no link, sorry) from Geoffrey Whitehead, the former CEO of Radio New Zealand and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, former deputy political editor at BBC and author of Tending the Flame of Democracy, who declared that Bell's hope for Foss ...

 … hasn't a chance in hell of coming about. As dame Anne Salmond has pointed out elsewhere, New Zealand has already lost its core West European "public good values" to American, then global, "business values".

I hold out a bit more hope for Foss than that. Yes, he's an investment banker by trade but according to one industry stakeholder who has met with him in his new role, he's sharp and capable of discussion.

Whitehead continued:

Mainstream New Zealand broadcasting has been allowed to slip down the slope of commercialism since 1987, when the then ostensibly Labour Minister (later Act leader) Richard Prebble invited me to hear Treasury officials describe his plan to make TVNZ legally obliged to put a financial return to the Government ahead of broad-interest programming content. I told them the result would be "crap television". I always remember the Treasury official's reply: "So what?"

Whitehead believes Bell's "only hope" is the sale of TVNZ and the scrapping of NZ On Air and the transfer of their funds to set up "a broader version of Maori television."

The Maori Television option -- essentially the proposal by Brent Impey that a new mainstream public service channel be established under the governance and management of Maori Television -- is, according to Drinnan in the Herald last week, strongly opposed by both TVNZ and Mediaworks. The reason, he speculates, is that they fear losing some of their own public funding. Such is the nature of the contestable funding environment.

Other voices have not even pretended sympathy. Notably, this spiteful and factually haphazard Herald editorial, published on January 13, which virtually dances on the grave of Stratos TV, which sadly went off air just before Christmas.

Like an editorial that appeared in April last year (they are presumably by the same author) this one tosses out a figure of "just over 200,000 viewers a week" for TVNZ 7, presenting the number as evidence of the pitiful support for public service television.

You may or may not be shocked to learn that the Herald's editorial column does not have this right. No one seems quite sure where the 207,000 figure came from, but at the least it was lazy using a year-old number without checking it.

TVNZ 7 -- like Maori TV does and Stratos did -- generally reports its audience as a monthly cume: that is, the total number of individuals who watched the channel during a month.

The average monthly cume for TVNZ 7 in 2011 was 1.1 million. The channel finished the year with a record 1.4 million viewers in December, according to Nielsen.

That's considerably more than the 574,000 who read the print edition of the Herald every week. It's also more than the 1.3 million Nielsen says read the Herald in print and online combined.

It's perilous to make too much of a comparison here -- apart from anything else, one is reported weekly, the other monthly -- but it would be fair to say that the Herald is on shaky ground when it carps about audience size.

For a more informed and insightful perspective on Stratos, allow me to commend to you David Beatson's post on Pundit, which underlines the lack of coherence in government policy on regional broadcasting over years -- up to and including the unexpected (and frankly puzzling) decision by Cabinet last year which essentially signed Stratos' death warrant.

I'm frequently asked what will happen to TVNZ 7 after its scheduled closure in June, and to the local programmes on the channel, including ours. My reply is that there are a number of things that could happen -- including the lights just going out as scheduled, which remains the most likely -- and I don't know what will happen. Nonethless, it seems only proper to talk about it while we have it.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's recording, we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ some time between 5.15pm and 5.40pm. Try and let me know you're coming by clicking the little envelope icon below.

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