Every year Radio NZ surveys a sizeable chunk of NZers to see what they think about public service radio. The results are overwhelmingly in favour of the state radio broadcaster's importance.
Last year 88% agreed that it is important for New Zealand to have a public service radio broadcaster (4% disagree). So even if people don't listen they think Radio NZ is extremely important. It's worth asking whether NZers think the same thing about public service television? I don't know the answer definitively. But I think they would say yes.
Television that's made for and by New Zealanders and is commercial free. That represents us. All of us. That's creative, funny, quirky, intelligent and interesting. It sounds like our very own TVNZ7. It's only been around 4 years, but TVNZ7 has, despite not being properly marketed by its parent TVNZ, gathered a strong and loyal following across the board. It fills a niche. It's digital TV. It's signalling the way to the future and it has energy and has resulted in the emergence of significant new talent on our screens.
It could and should be growing and maturing. Instead, because this government does not value public broadcast television, it will be axed on 30 June.
Can it be saved? Yes. Should it be saved? Yes. Will it be saved? Not if this government can help it.
I am drafting a private members bill which would ensure TVNZ7 had adequate funding to continue. But a private members bill goes into a ballot with around 60 other bills and it's the luck of the draw as to whether it gets pulled out. If it did, it would be interesting to see the support for TVNZ7 and public service television across the House. I think the government might find itself outnumbered.
It is worth having the public discussion and keeping this issue alive. Because public service television, like radio, represents an important component of democracy. I think many people know this but have become accustomed and resigned to steady diet of commercial driven pap, which comprises of reality TV and advertorial.
Jane Bowron, writing in The Listener Fairfax lamented the differences in programme schedules last Thursday between TV One and TVNZ7:
After Close Up, TV One kicks off prime time viewing with Coronation Street, followed by The Chawners' Last Chance - a reality series about a recalcitrant and morbidly obese Bristish family - then the visual pollution that is Benidorn. Over on the only public state broadcasting channel TVNZ7, the programming starts off with Brainiac - Science Abuse, The Artists, followed by a relatively in depth, compared to TV One, hour of news, then Media 7, hosted by Russell Brown, The Court Report, hosted by Linda Clark, and Justice; What's the right thing to do?
When you compare the two, one so lacking in any cerebral stimulation, the other an intellectual oasis, it isn't difficult to work out what the right thing to do is - Save TVNZ7 at all cost.
The debate about TVNZ7 isn't just about saving a TV channel and some jobs. It's much bigger and more important than that. it's actually about our national identity, our psyche and our culture. Are we captive to a commercial mentality which is all about programming driven by the advertiser dollar? Or do we think we can produce television that people will watch that's driven by actual values and by creativity. Formulaic television has its place. People will watch NZ's top model, master chef, and who's got talent. But many also hunger for more depth and programming that's created by us.
There are two schools of thought. The government's view is that public service television can continue to be funded by NZ on Air funding programmes on commercial channels. The problem with this is that the most interesting programmes are not shown in prime time. And NZ on Air is, as Tom Frewen points out in NBR, increasingly using public funds to subsidise commercial television production. It's a cop out. It's pulling the wool over our eyes and it demonstrates that NZ on Air has been captured by an anti-public broadcasting mindset. It needs a serious review and revamp.
NZ On Air is freezing and squeezing budgets for special interest programmes that meet its statutory public broadcasting while it splashes out on more “commercially attractive” television productions. The $1.6 million local clone of British broadcaster Simon Cowell’s never-ending “The Globe’s Got Talent” show was first to cop the flak. Now, it’s a $419,000 injection of taxpayers’ funds into “The GC” – a glossy, virtual reality “documentary” series following the lives of nine carefully picked and groomed, successful young “Mozzies” [Maori – Australians] playing hard and “investing” in a Gold Coast town “full of resource-rich night life”. How much of this kind of flying Kiwi reality do we need?
The other view is that we need some big changes in broadcasting. And that there is a very clear and important role for and need for commercial free public broadcasting in this country. How we do that is the big question. Because someone has to pay. There's a strong argument for a complete revamp of the sector and the Broadcasting Act. For a new independent public service TV channel separate from TVNZ. For requiring commercial channels, including the pay TV channel Sky to contribute. For even a small levy on internet connections to enable a new service to embrace the broadband environment and develop more Kiwi content that is accessible to Kiwis.
There's a strong view that if TVNZ7 was able to continue, and however it is funded, it should be completely separate from TVNZ control and influence.
Judy Callingham (a former deputy chair of NZ on Air) has some very strong views on this:
The channel itself should be a totally separate entity, run by a separate organisation. Whether that’s a trust, a government entity or a company is a detail that can be worked out later. What is important now is to remove the channel from the control of TVNZ altogether – mere editorial independence isn’t enough.
The separate entity could still use TVNZ studios and staff and equipment if need be. It would hire them, just as private companies do. It would, and should, expect mates’ rates, but it shouldn’t expect to use the facilities for nothing, although perhaps the cost could be absorbed and become a paper addition to TVNZ’s annual dividend.
I pretty much agree. My bill, which is yet to be released will do its best to reflect this. But don't hold your breath that it will save the day. A clamour of voices might make the government sit up and pay attention.
There's another important debate around how Kiwis can get access to more non-Kiwi content where they don't have to pay a significant monthly subscription to the only pay TV provider in town. But that's for another day.
There are a lot of issues to solve. The most pressing is do we want our own commercial-free public television station or don't we? And what are we going to do about it?