Hard News by Russell Brown


Ante Up

At last year's SPADA conference, Broadcasting minister Jonathan Coleman clearly stated his preference on public broadcasting policy. It was fairly simple. TVNZ, relieved of its Charter obligations, should be left to operate as a commercial broadcaster. And the public-good broadcasting obligation should rest entirely with TVNZ 7, which would, more or less, continue to be funded by the taxpayer.

That was not what happened. Instead, the government announced that it would not renew or revisit Labour's $89 million five-year funding commitment to the two digital channels TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7, effectively signing TVNZ 7's death warrant (6 was already gone: its frequency taken by the youth channel U and its programming moved to Heartland on Sky).

That Coleman, who hardly bristles with mana, should lose his argument with a Cabinet inhabited by certain ministers with an antipathy towards TVNZ and towards the idea of public broadcasting in general is not particularly surprising.

What is surprising is that Coleman's Opposition counterpart Clare Curran doesn't seem to have been able to win that argument with the Labour leadership.

Yes, Labour's new broadcasting policy features a commitment to a public broadcaster -- or, rather "a new model for non-commercial public broadcasting" in "a modern converged digital environment"-- aligned and sharing resources with Radio New Zealand, but with a separate board. But it hasn't said how such a thing might be paid for.

Curran assured Simon Mercep yesterday morning that:

We don't anticipate any extra cost to the taxpayer. We're going to be asking the broadcasting industry and the telco sector and other interested stakeholders how they think it should be funded. We think there are a range of options to be canvassed.

It would have been wise to outline some of those options. Open consultation is one thing; asking the industry how it thinks Labour's policy should be paid for is quite another.

Let me help, then. The options might include:

• The Big Kahuna: if TVNZ is now relieved of any and all obligations to the public good, why hang onto it? On recent form, not for the dividends.

• A local production levy on pay television, like that in Australia.

• A sponsorship model to subsidise the taxpayer's contribution. Acknowledging sponsorship on public radio is intrusive and ugly -- because all radio projects is sound, any message is actively delivered. TV can do the job passively, with logos. At any rate, as I note below, I suspect public TV will need to be less assiduously pure about such acknowledgements than radio.

• A must-pay-must-carry law for the public channel, as is the case in some European countries. Networks -- Sky and probably telcos -- would be required to carry the public-good channel at a stipulated rate. This would be controversial, but it's not unworkable.

• Reclaiming the Platinum Fund, which holds what used to be TVNZ's tagged Charter funding. That would be a shame, because it's the only contestable funding explicitly tagged to Charter-style programming. Mind you, even documentaries with such funding in hand have struggled to get screening commitments from the networks, which really only like factual programmes about the deformed and morbidly obese these days.

• Opening the Platinum Fund to the new broadcaster, on a contestable basis. Most of it would likely go to the public entity, given the commercial networks' aversion to public-good programming.

At any rate, Labour's plan requires at least some taxpayer funding by its very design. The proposed "public debate" would play out over its first year in government -- the existing funding ends in June 2012. If the intention is to preserve some of the programmes developed by TVNZ 7, that isn't going to happen without some money to fill the gap.

When Labour announced the original five-year funding the expectation was that TVNZ 6 and 7 would become self-sustaining. No progress was made towards that goal, which is not entirely surprising given market conditions and National's apparent lack of interest in such a goal. Labour could have promised an extension to the funding on the understanding that genuine progress towards sustainability would be expected.

I can see no prospect of financial sustainability without a more liberal attitude to commercial branding than is countenanced at Radio NZ. We live in a time when a good deal of public-interest programming is being made without coming near TV. Would you watch Webstock or NetHui videos as part of a TV schedule? I would. I'd also happily watch beautifully-produced music video from 95bFM's Roundhead Sessions, or the New Zealand Herald's Sundae Sessions.

In all those cases, it's quite conceivable that that the owners would make such programmes available at little or no cost, on the basis that their ownership and branding was acknowledged on screen. The new broadcaster could even publish standards for the production of such works.

I'm conscious here of not wishing to step on the important role of regional TV and of the Triangle/Stratos access-TV model. We need those. But this wouldn't be access TV as such; it would be curated. Labour's proposal to facilitate programme supply between regional and public broadcasters also makes sense here.

Another obvious source of content is the archives. It would be thoroughly repugnant to sell the TVNZ Archives along with the network, but even if TVNZ isn't sold, it only takes a legislative change to facilitate the supply of archive works to the new broadcaster. The current government did it with the Television New Zealand Amendment Act, which eased the way for TVNZ to operate the Heartland channel on Sky, and offered some rights of access to Maori Television and NZ On Screen.

Here's another pitch: the diaspora. We've been able to make Media7 available via the internet to New Zealanders watching from outside New Zealand (the geoblock occasionally goes back on -- let me know if you have a problem and I'll get it fixed). Radio New Zealand, thanks to the advocacy of Richard Hulse and others, does not employ geoblocking or digital rights management -- it is available live, and on-demand, to listeners anywhere.

A new public-good TV broadcaster should be available on the same basis. I could live with its carriage being mandated as an alternative to regulation of internet peering.

Regarding Radio New Zealand, John Barnett's "radio with pictures" proposal for a new channel is falling from favour -- it would be fair to say that Radio NZ staff and management loathe the idea -- and, really, it relied on filling way too much of the schedule with cameras pointed at Jim Mora and Mary Wilson. But the idea has merit where it can be done well. Hire Wammo and let him work on it.

It makes sense for the new TV channel to share news resources with Radio New Zealand. A decent chunk of any new funding -- yeah, I know, what funding? -- should go to Radio NZ to strengthen its news service with that in mind.

I may revisit this issue soon -- next week Media7 will be covering the SPADA conference -- but this will do for now. Feel free to contribute your own commentary.

There's no denying I have an interest in this. I love making Media7 and I would love to continue to doing so. One of the ironies of Cabinet's de-funding decision this year was that it happened as TVNZ 7's flagship shows were really maturing, and as awareness and viewership of the channel hit a step-change.

We used to have to explain who we were every time someone made a call on behalf of Media7. Last week, the taxi driver who picked up Jose and I immediately recognised us and asked what we were doing in town. Over two days, plenty of other people did the same. Strangers volunteer to me that TVNZ 7 is the only channel they really watch. It is valued.

And the ratings bear that out. From Nielsen, via the Save TVNZ 7 group, monthly cumulative figures for 2011. On average, each month:

2.1 million people watched a programme on TVNZ 7

1.6 million people watched a programme on Maori TV

1.2 million people watched a programme UKTV, Sky’s best rating channel

[Update: I'm not sure where Save TVNZ 7's numbers come from, but I've been looking at monthly cume figures that are quite a bit lower than those quoted above, so I don't think the above is correct.]

[Update 2: According to Nielsen cumes, TVNZ 7 averages 1.16m a month in 2011 (highest: Oct 2011 1.41m). Maori TV averages 2.01m (highest: Sep 2011 2.64m). Highest rating Sky channel is The Box at 1.4m a month (UKTV averages at 1.26m)

It is clearly not the case that no one watches public television. The point is that public television can deliver programming outside the bounds of the demographics targeted by the ad agencies upon whom commercial broadcasters rely, and outside of the need to win every timeslot. It can serve audiences that are loss-making for commercial broadcasters. That is a job that a contestable funding model like the present one will never be able to do properly on its own.

In that context, budgeting $10 million or so to keep such a service running, inside or outside the building at TVNZ, doesn't seem that big a stretch. I'm disappointed that Labour, having advanced some good ideas and averred its belief in public broadcasting, has lacked the courage to say how it would pay for those ideas.

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