Fresh ideas versus same old, same old…

Oscar Wilde once observed that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So let’s talk about it, that unprecedented threat to our health and well-being – public service television.

Never mind that we’ve never had it, the mere mention of it makes some in the commentariat fume. Take Mike Hoskings. Nice bloke. Shame about the rash he’s developed over this issue, though he’s not alone. Here’s a take from his comments:

If I ever went into politics I’d want to be broadcasting minister.

Because many a government hasn’t taken it particularly seriously and has handed the job to people who don’t have a clue.

Marian Hobbs of a previous Labour government was one of those.

Marian dreamed up the charter for TVNZ and what a farcical exercise that was.

An idea that meant everything or nothing, all contained on an A4 page that took forever to come up with and resulted yet again in the state broadcaster TVNZ going through bizarre convulsions that hurt the bottom line merely to appease an ideologically driven government.

I know all this because I was there at the time and got immersed in some of the bizarre out-workings of having a government omnipresent in a company’s life, including some particularly colourful contract negotiations that will one day be revealed in my book.

He is entitled to his opinion about former Minister Marian Hobbs, but she was possibly the best the industry has ever had. And, given a poisoned chalice – which is to say one that would deeply offend market mentality, she and her government did not give up on their aim of improving the quality of television fare on TVNZ.

What Hoskings isn’t entitled to imply is that somehow, he was in the trenches as Board and management battled it out as when we implemented the Charter on the Board Policy Committee. For a moment at least it offered an opportunity to increase the range of programming to viewers. But back to Mike:

What I learned is government’s (sic) don’t run companies well, and broadcasting, especially broadcasting in 2018, with its myriad of issues and change, needs government in its office like it needs a hole in the head.

Again, just to set the record straight, our governments prior to de-regulation, have always run television. Muldoon re-structured several times then amalgamated TVOne and TV2. Roger Douglas indulged in fanciful re-structuring in 1975 creating TV2,  but leaving it severely under-capitalised and short of transmission sites. In 1989 Richard Prebble de-regulated, overlooking core broadcasting principles to educate, inform and entertain. In 1991 National’s Maurice Williamson removed all foreign ownership restrictions in a move which remains unprecedented elsewhere in the world.

Anybody following this ideological trajectory might notice one significant absence – viewer/shareholders.

So along comes the Charter and yes, it’s from the Left but still far less intrusive than Muldoon’s re-structuring. It arrived as a one pager – like those for most PSB broadcasters.  And it was backed by $15 million  worth of funding aimed at broadening the range of programming. Imagine this kind of TV fare if the Nats hadn’t scrapped the Charter

  • Television which routinely incorporated independent and in-depth analysis of news and current affairs here and around the world?
  • Programming which contributed towards informed and many-sided debate and stimulated critical thought?
  • A broadcaster which took the regions seriously and featured programmes which reflected the regions to the nation as a whole.
  • One which took creative risks – and provided shared experiences which contributed to a sense of citizenship and national identity?

All of that was in the aspirational Charter nearly 20 years ago, so how are public broadcasters doing now in the Netflix era? In an annual survey that includes media, news organisations and other institutions like the courts, PBS in America of all places has been rated as the most trustworthy institution among nationally known organisations for 14 consecutive years, from 2003 through 2017.

But how could public broadcasting shape our sense of ourselves in the future? Here’s an indication from Mark Scott, former Managing Director of Australia’s ABC in an address to the National Press Club:

… 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.

Here,  Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran hasn’t had a charmed run in her portfolio so far. She is however sticking to policy when faced with the same self-interested bleating from commercial TV, including TVNZ. You’d think they would, as free market players, welcome something  to… you know, compete against. But both Mediaworks, owned by private equity US company Oaktree, and TVNZ played up the negatives.

The Channel Three owner told the Ministerial Advisory Group it might have to pull out of  television – if media policies didn’t change. Very subtle. TV3 was rescued by the National  Government in 1991 through sweeping changes in overseas ownership limits. Now its bosses  warn that there would be ‘a genuine risk that the Government, through its owned media channels, may become the only broadcaster in  New Zealand’. TVNZ wanted a focus on ‘the  health of the local media industry as a whole’.

All of this is of course complete twaddle, ignoring what viewers might want – and have never experienced – non-commercial public TV. But then when orthodoxy is so entrenched, new ideas are heresy.

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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.