Hard News by Russell Brown


TVNZ: Emptied out

To those who visit TVNZ, as I do every week to record our TV show for another channel, the place has the feel of an abandoned building. The journalists toil on the ground floor at the west end, but nearly everyone else -- sales, programming, senior management -- has been gone for months.

The atrium is inaccessible and the Victoria Street foyer is walled off, leaving a narrow corridor to the studios, the media centre and the lifts. On the upside, it's never been easier to get a car park in the basement.

It's not quite how it feels, of course. The upper floors will eventually be repopulated on completion of the "transformation opportunity" triggered by the $10.6m sale of the adjoining building to SkyCity for its conference centre extension (which was brokered, in the first instance, without notice to the broadcaster's own board). Already, part of the plastic covering has been removed to expose refurbished glass cladding, as shiny as the day the it opened.

But for now, the state of the place is as a good a metaphor as any for what's happening to the state broadcaster. It is emptying out. Some of the many people who once constituted its institutional knowledge do come back to work, but not as employees.

It's all part of a strategy to move away from production (with the exception of news and current affars) and become a "publisher" of content -- and, as CEO Kevin Kenrick put it recently, to "exit non-core assets." One of the less visible symptoms is the running down of TVNZ's facilities business, which will see the decommissioning of its Wellington outside broadcast truck, the one that brings you Back Benches.

This is the context for last week's announcement that TVNZ will no longer produce most of its Maori and Pasifika programmng. Waka HuiaMaraeFresh and Tagata Pasifika will all be outsourced to independent producers. Only the news programme Te Karere will remain.

Not everything about this is necessarily bad. John Bishara, the CEO of Te Mangai Paho, which funds the Maori shows, has gone on record as saying it will improve transparency in the way funding is used. Once things settle out, it may empower independent producers, particularly those outside Auckland.

The problem is more about what it does to TVNZ, the broadcaster we own. It's a clear statement that Maori and Pasifika no longer have a place at the core of the enterprise. There will be 30 fewer brown faces in the building, in the Polynesian capital of the world. Much will rest on the commssioner of Maori programmes, Kath Graham (Ngati Koroki Kahukura). As the Maori screen production group notes,  you certainly would not want to bet on the present level of service being retained.

On a purely financial level, it's working. TVNZ's annual profit is up 25% to $18 million (which is still vastly short of Sky TV's profit, up 21% to $165 million). The path to profit seems smoother under a chief executive who has never really let slip any affection for television itself.

Speculation that this is all part of TVNZ being prepared for sale isn't actually the point. The thing is that we will reach the stage -- if we're not there already -- of asking why we do actually bother owning the thing.


UPDATE: Last night's Media Take is now available for viewing on-demand.

On Media Take tonight at 10.05pm on Maori Television, my co-host Toi Iti conducts a lively discussion on the outsourcing news with Maori Party MP Marama Fox and Richard Pamatatau, the programme leader at AUT's Graduate Diploma in Pacific Journalism.

Later in the show, I talk to three young journalism graduates about the realities of training for an industry where both employment and pay a shrinking.

And we finish up with a look at several projects aimed at envisaging a new future for a rebuilding Christchurch, including Roger Dennis's Sensing City and Gerard Smyth's six-part second series of Christchurch from the Streets.

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