Time for public television?

“If I am in the privileged  position of being  Prime Minister, my expectation is that politics will be based around ideas and policy” –  Labour  leader Jacinda Ardern, on  Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report.

What’s this?  Ideas  defrosted  from the ice of  ideology? Policy untrammelled  by The Market, that  blinker on  political   imaginings.

So here’s an idea: Non-commercial  public  television channels.    There’ll be  howls of protest because  the idea is  just  so  stoopid. That will  come from those who want the status  quo.   Others will decry it as  too expensive. That too  will  come from the same camp.   Few will oppose it on technological grounds.

The moment seems to have arrived.  If our  tattered society  needs   nation-building and  if the   free to air  commercial TV  model is  faltering, then  creating Kiwi   public television using  modern technology  is  one of the most effective  ways  to build  our sense of  nationhood.   Incredibly,   after all these years we remain one of the few  countries in the western world without a public television  service. With the exception of   its first year,  New Zealand  television has always been  partnered with  commerce.   Annoying but a fact of life.

But revenues  and audiences  for free-to-air  commercial broadcasting   have been in decline.  One indication: TVNZ’s 2015 annual report  shows that total revenue declined 2.9% year-on-year to $350.0 million, with total advertising revenue down 1.9%.  But still it reported a net profit  after tax of 28.1 million for the year.   For the following year, TVNZ reported a  profit of $12.7 million. But today (August 31)  it reported an 89% loss in net profit over the past year.  This was because of a contractual commitment to Disney programming,  according to the network.

As for audiences, A 2016 New Zealand  On Air Report shows that   traditional media continue to deliver the biggest audiences in New Zealand but adds: ‘however these audiences have declined since 2014 and nearly all online media and especially SVOD  – subscription based video on demand –  services have grown significantly’.

Younger New Zealanders are significantly more likely to engage in all these activities according to the  report, but even among 15-34 year olds just one in four (23%) participate in the most common activity weekly (Streaming, downloading or torrenting TV shows from an overseas site), up from 16% in 2014.

 If the  young are  turning increasingly to overseas content how will that shape  our sense of ourselves  in the future?   Here’s an indication from  former Managing Director  of Australia’s ABC in an address to the National Press Club:

… the share of quality Australian content is shrinking, overwhelmed by the flood of global content on multi-channels, pay TV and the new SVOD services. It is one of the mixed blessings of being a country of 24 million, speaking a language that 750 million others speak…

…if we’re concerned about the long-term effect of this pattern on our culture, the single most important thing the Government can do is to appropriately invest in the one segment of the media market that’s specifically not set up to produce profit: the ABC.

And he went on to say how… in this digital era, if you wanted to create a new broadcasting service to serve multicultural audiences, you wouldn’t create an entire separate broadcasting organization.

Instead, you’d create a channel or channels. You could call it SBS or something like that   and brand it distinctively. But you wouldn’t create an entirely separate and discrete  organisation to do so – any more than Foxtel creates entire new media companies every time it creates new channels.

Separate channels could serve a distinct audience, just as News 24 serves a distinct audience, just as ABC 3 serves a distinct audience – but with an efficient, streamlined back office.

Like other broadcasters TVNZ is  exploring  and   exploiting digital opportunities and for the  time being  is an efficient profit maker for  its shareholder, the Government.

But viewers are the real shareholders  and  the television we see is  narrowly based and thoroughly  commercial,  with  local content  struggling at  31% of prime time schedules – down from 36% in 2015.  (The biggest increase was seen in entertainment programming according  to NZOA). http://www.nzonair.govt.nz/research/

So does what  we see  showcase us as a people and society? Do we treasure it the way we do Radio New Zealand?

Consider this:

  • What if  our television  happily incorporated independent  and in-depth analysis of news and current affairs  here and  around the world?
  • What if it showed programming  which contributed  towards informed and many-sided debate and stimulated  critical thought?
  • Imagine if it  featured programmes which reflected the  regions to the  nation as a whole, took creative risks –  and  provided  shared experiences  which   contributed to a sense of  citizenship and national identity?

Well, we  had that once. It  was a $15 million attempt to   provide quality television through the TVNZ Charter.   National canned it.

Now,  there’s a sense of  crisis at TVNZ – and an  opportunity for  those who like ideas and policy…

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.