Once upon a Charter

A very long time ago when I was an NBR media commentator, a senior Treasury official asked me what I  thought about the  future of TVNZ.  I told him that its hyper-commercialism was  driving viewers away; that people were  sick and tired of ads and much of the network’s ratings-driven  programming.

He paused, stroked his chin and looked into the distance.  “Hmm” he said.  “Here, we would call that a long term strategic loss.”

The managerial lingo went over my head but it seemed clear: if TVNZ continued this way there would be a reckoning. And so it came to be. For the first time the Government will not be receiving a dividend as it has ever since TVNZ became a State Owned Enterprise.

TVNZ’s lavish dividends after the 1989 de-regulation of the industry dwindled at the same time as broadcasters were hit by the digital revolution which brought much of the commercial media  including print to the brink, as advertisers  spread their spend online.

De-regulation was rushed, indifferent to public  interest but infatuated with the  Market   This time  around the proposed changes  by Labour have somehow become  something of  a  shemozzle, but at least they  represent an attempt  to introduce  public broadcasting.  The question is how.

The  Government’s  initial plan was to incorporate Radio New Zealand into a new public broadcasting entity including TVNZ.  Even on paper it sounded an absurd proposition  – radio and  television don’t mix easily. A hint of the protests ahead began when RNZ’s  Board and management proposed radical changes to  the country’s most beloved broadcasting institution, the Concert Programme.

RNZ’s moves created an uproar and  an estimated 26,000 people signed a petition opposing the moves because for this cultural treasure, they wanted Rachmaninov not robots.  Some took to the streets even before RNZ backtracked, saying it would maintain Concert on FM, not move it to AM.  If this managerial approach can be taken, then how will the rest of RNZ, with its  public service remit, be treated?  Will this most successful broadcaster really be incorporated to some as yet unspecified entity?  Or will the Government leave it in its current form  – created oddly enough by the 1989 political  de-regulators? Watch this  space…

By comparison TVNZ is fully commercial  and far removed from the Charter responsibilities of its public broadcasting counterparts. Its Charter was implemented in March 2003. Then, with a touching but transparent ideological regard for the network which never wanted it, National abolished the Charter in 2011.  It may have been a band-aid on a commercial broadcaster but some Charter objectives now show what might have been. TVNZ was called on to:

  • provide independent, comprehensive, impartial, and in-depth coverage and analysis of news and current affairs in New Zealand and throughout the world and of the activities of public and private institutions;
  • feature programming that contributes towards intellectual, scientific and cultural development, promotes informed and many-sided debate and stimulates critical thought, thereby enhancing opportunities for citizens to participate in community, national and international life;
  • feature programmes that reflect the regions to the nation as a whole;
  • promote understanding of the diversity of cultures making up the New Zealand population;
  • feature New Zealand films, drama, comedy and documentary programmes;
  • feature programmes about New Zealand’s history and heritage, and natural environment;
  • include in programming intended for a mass audience material that deals with minority interests;
  • feature New Zealand and international programmes that provide for the informational, entertainment and educational needs of children and young people and allow for the participation of children and young people;
  • feature programmes that encourage and support the arts, including programmes featuring New Zealand and international artists and arts companies;
  • reflect the role that sporting and other leisure interests play in New Zealand life and culture and;
  • and feature programming of an educational nature that support learning and the personal development of New Zealanders.

This standard remit for public broadcasting was laid down  long before the arrival of Netflix, Lightbox and Neon. By comparison  the Charter was an attempt  not just to ‘reflect’  New Zealand content – New Zealand On Air’s task – but to make  a totally different content which is  truly ours.

The real problem the Government faces as it fumbles towards public broadcasting is two-fold. First we have never had a public television broadcaster. If you google public  broadcasting in New Zealand it comes up with  an  incredible answer: Maori Television. As good as it is, that network remains at best an ethnic broadcaster.

The second question is why hasn’t the Government held community consultations over this  re-structuring? As far back as 1973, the Adam Committee travelled the country visiting urban areas and remote parts of the country. Years on, the growth of regionalism represents real opportunities as provincial towns have flourished. Then the   Committee spent time asking people how they felt broadcasting should be developed and incorporated their views.

That’s a long way from where we are today – in the dark and not at all sure if we will finally get non-commercial Public Broadcasting television.

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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.