Hard News by Russell Brown


The digital switch-off

Were I a Sky Television shareholder or senior manager, I'd be pretty happy with the present government. Since taking office in 2008, National has scuttled a major review of broadcasting regulation whose conclusions would likely not have been to Sky's liking.

It overtly leaned on TVNZ to make its Freeview-only digital channels available to Sky. It drafted the TVNZ Amendment Bill, which smooths the path for public heritage content to appear on pay TV. It has presided over a provisional carve-up of post-digital-switchover spectrum reckoned by some to be markedly generous to Sky.

And now, NZ On Air production funding is, apparently, soon to be made available to pay TV broadcasters.

Could the government possibly do anything else to help? Well, yes, it could and it is. It's an open secret by now that funding for TVNZ 7 -- which has wholly assumed the public service mantle now that TVNZ 6 has been closed down and relaunched as the radio-with-pictures channel U -- will not be renewed when it expires in June next year.

I gather the decision has been made by Cabinet and was to be announced last week. That's understandable -- it would have been seen as a cynical attempt to bury the bad news beneath the rubble of the earthquake -- but it might still suit the government to let the issue play out passively.

Broadcasting minister Jonathan Coleman certainly won't want to be shouting about it. He made it clear at last year's Spada conference that he favoured the public service obligation being assumed by TVNZ 7, allowing the rest of the company to focus on profit. He has been singularly unable to win his case -- Steven Joyce and Bill English are said to be the doubters -- meaning that the sole expectation of the state-owned broadcaster will be to deliver commercial dividends.

Some people are celebrating the decision. In NBR, Chris Keall writes:

… from the perspective of a Sky TV shareholder, the news is all good.

Anticipating changes to TVNZ's mandate, Forsyth Barr analyst Rob Mercer said today that "The new TVNZ, under National’s leadership, will have a clear mandate to re-establish profit as its primary objective and for the senseless taxpayer funded projects to be axed."

Others will muse that TVNZ 7 is to be axed at the same time as the crop of shows it has nurtured have reached some maturity: Back Benches, Media7, The Court Report, The Good Word; and when Damian Christie's Hindsight has just begun to take an intelligent, engaging look at our TV heritage. I know that at Media7 we feel we're doing something different and useful, and I'm sure the other teams feel that way too.

Jane Clifton's Dominion Post column on these decisions might have been amazingly inaccurate with respect to public facts -- she wrote that the TVNZ digital channels received $80 million in taxpayer funding annually, when they were actually granted $79 million to cover five and a half years of broadcast and production costswhich is what expires next June -- but her characterisation of the anti-TVNZ mood at the Beehive is presumably correct. She's nothing if not tuned in to the gossip.

In this situation, TVNZ's board has few options. Other means of paying for a public service channel have been explored and found wanting. Perhaps a way forward will present itself before the money runs out; perhaps individual programmes will be rescued.

But for now, it's sad news, and I'm going to be looking for a new job next year. I think this will be another blow for older viewers -- always the keenest audience for public service content. And while I am keenly aware of how much we are borrowing as a nation each week, and the demands the Christchurch reconstruction will make on the public purse, I'm also inclined to wonder whether all those tax cuts were worth the social cost.


Anyway, Media7 is on air for a while yet, and we have a good little exclusive this week. Jon Stephenson has been in Europe, and has secured us an interview with Wikileaks apostate Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

With Domscheit-Berg's erstwhile colleague Julian Assange this week entering another round of his bid to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, new and troubling charges against alleged leaker Bradley Manning, and the news that Dreamworks has secured film rights to The Guardian's book Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's war on Secrecy, the timing is appropriate. I'll be joined by Jon and Toby Manhire to discuss recent developments.

If you'd like to join us for Wednesday's Media7 recording, come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ betwen 5.15 and 5.45pm. Drop me an email to let me know you're coming, if possible.

223 responses to this post

First ←Older Page 1 2 3 4 5 9 Newer→ Last