Decision-time looms on the future of any version of public service television. As early as today, Cabinet will consider what to do, if anything, once the funding for TVNZ’s non-commercial channels, 6 + 7, runs out next year. These channels form the backbone of the Freeview service, set up to provide a digital competitor to the Murdoch-dominated Sky TV pay channels. About one in four NZ homes are now receiving Freeview – half those with Sky.
My understanding is that the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Treasury’s Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit are juggling three possible outcomes which reflect the lack of coherence within Cabinet about public service broadcasting:
1/ Do nothing, leave it up to TVNZ to sort it out, unassisted.
2/ Create a small independent entity to run 7 (and possibly 6), perhaps with some contracted Radio NZ services
3/ Morph TVNZ 7 into Radio NZ
None of these options seem likely to be funded to work. viably.
- Leaving it to TVNZ will have its likely Cabinet backers. Bill English and Treasury will not sanction a new funding round to the tune of last time, so sticking it on little-loved TVNZ will have its appeal. Steven Joyce, who made his fortune in private radio, may be in this camp too, so this option may prove hard to beat. Except the state owned broadcaster is barely trading profitably this year and to date has subsidized 6+7 well beyond the $79m one-off funding grant (created out of boomtime TVNZ dividends.) Funding even TVNZ7 would eat into expected dividends. And TVNZ is now explicitly told that its only function is to make cash; to require it to carry two, or even one non-commercial channel, is contrary to the aims of the TVNZ Amendment Bill (before Parliament but not passed.)
- Creating a small independent entity is implausible. Television needs pictures. The easiest and best way to provide them is via TVNZ. Some form of ongoing link to TVNZ could possible be stitched into any the provisions for a small new broadcaster but TVNZ would then expect to be paid handsomely for news and other programme feeds. At present, young TVNZ reporters are cutting their teeth on the round-the-clock demands of TVNZ 7. As already blogged, if the funding for a stand-alone were to come from cuts to NZ on Air’s budget, this could be at the expense of the independent production sector. Even forcing NZ on Air to hand over the new Platinum Fund to TVNZ7 seems unlikely, as it would be an embarrassing backdown for Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman. And “ghettoising’ much NZ content in a small audience channel would pull viewership off TV One, Two and TV3 to the further benefit of Sky.
- A forced merger of TVNZ7 and Radio NZ would be opposed by many supporters of Radio NZ, myself included. That’s not because combined operations can’t work but like any relationship they need time, space and security. I doubt there is enough goodwill in this Cabinet towards the concept of public service broadcasting for that to happen. Radio NZ is already under-funded; you can’t strap on television without new funding and a new Charter for public service broadcasting to make this work well. Neither of these will appeal to Coleman and Cabinet.
For about $15m a year, we’ve had two non-commercial channels – extraodinary value thanks to Steve Maharey and TVNZ’s stretch of resources. A renewed arrangement could look at all the funding options and provide a huge opportunity to re-define how Channel 7 operates and its relationship with TVNZ.
Perhaps, just perhaps, some in Cabinet might see that as a nation we need a viable alternative to an increasingly commercial model where even news bulletins are shaped around minute by minute ratings; and how TVNZ’s value to the Crown and taxpayers is diminishing as Sky beams into ever more homes while audiences also fragment to new media.
Some thoughts on that next post.