The end of the long con…

The Lost Generation

‘There’s a generation of Kiwis who have grown up not knowing what public service television is’, says the Better Public Media Trust on its website. And it goes on to list the  programming casualties lost in the shifting battlefields of broadcasting over the past 50  years:

TV Genres Extinct in NZ

  • arts programmes
  • science programmes
  • programmes for people over 50
  • regional news and current affairs
  • natural history

‘We only find out what we’ve been missing when we do our OE in the UK or Australia (or Canada, US, France, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia or one of the many countries with public service TV channels’ said the Trust.

True, but the painful fact is that we have never experienced public television in its pure commercial-free form and for that we can blame successive Governments which ignored the concepts of public broadcasting and allowed commercial television to flourish.

At the peak of de-regulation a Treasury official once asked what was so wrong with  commercialism on TV. I told him that TV wasn’t so much commercialised as hyper-commercialised and that  in my view at least,  viewers were  sick and tired of ads.

“Hmm” he muttered, “we would call that a long term strategic loss”. Years later I came to appreciate his prescience because in recent  years, free-to-air  television has been in dire financial straits. Broadcast networks are losing huge sums while digital rivals are rapidly gaining ground.

It’s true that dramatic changes in communications technologies are  partly to blame. But the most consistent culprits in the shaping and re-shaping of television in New Zealand have been politicians. Here’s a sample of  some of their actions:

  • 1973 – Broadcasting Minister Roger Douglas creates two independent channels from the old NZBC. In 1976, one year after TVONE and TV2 went to air, TVONE could boast that 75 hours of local drama had been produced in its first 12 months. (More drama than the NZBC had produced in its 13 years). But this re-structuring came with its problems and opposition Leader Rob Muldoon took note saying:                                                                                    “Roger Douglas was responsible for the broadcasting fiasco which destroyed the NZBC…   It  put in its place three corporations which were financially unsound and operationally unacceptable to the public”.
  • Subsequently the two TV channels were amalgamated under the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand, and in 1980 Television New Zealand was launched but this move also had its flaws.
  • PM Muldoon refused to raise that now antique funding mechanism, the licence fee.

The  1986 Royal Commission into Broadcasting report revealed the financial impacts on TVNZ.  It showed that in  1974 revenue from the licence fee was 42.5%. In 1986 it had fallen to just 16%. TVNZ was pushed further and further into the arms of advertisers, to the chagrin of BCNZ chairman and author, Ian Cross who wrote about the ‘lady’ of televison:

It would be a tragedy if, because of neglect or lack of vision on our part, she has to be constantly offering her favours to the market place in order to survive…

The tragedy Cross referred to was inevitable but warnings like his were made as far back as 1973 in the Adam Committee, which wrote:

The committee agrees that the danger exists especially and indeed almost invariably, in a system handed over entirely to commercial interests, where the size of the audience is the main pre-occupation.

If commercialisation was a thorny issue, so too was the role television was required to play, especially over identity. Once it seemed simple: In 1976 broadcasters should educate, entertain and inform. But as the prospect of competition from TV3 neared, there was a shift among Government officials on the issue of  cultural identity. They recommended that state broadcasters should have as their predominant objective in programming ‘the reflection of New Zealand identity and culture’.

Broadcasting Minister Richard Prebble was once asked why the original public service aims had not been incorporated in his 1989 de-regulation of the industry. He admitted he hadn’t ‘cracked it hard enough’   and  then added, rather breathtakingly:

My reason for not pushing it hard was because I have an aversion to politicians educating people. So I was never quite sure about the educating and informing bit. In fact, if I was ever to put it in a broadcasting charter, I’m not sure I would put the words in.

Prebble’s de-regulation allowed unprecedented levels of advertising and sponsorship. In 1975 there were just five advertising days a week. Ten years later, six.

Even worse, the legislation was devoid of philosophical requirements for broadcasters, though thankfully, the funding body New Zealand On Air promoted local content ‘reflecting’ NZ identity and culture. But ‘reflecting’ has always been  an elusive  concept. It did however  allow the  architects of  de-regulation to  side-step the  more challenging  remit of  public service television driven by specific programming obligations laid down in a  Charter.

Thirty years on, the need for public broadcasters to be better funded and re-invented for the 21st century has never been more urgent. At stake in many countries is democracy itself.

‘…Research shows that people exposed to news on public television are better-informed than those exposed to news on private TV. The Reuters Institute has explored the challenges that lie ahead for journalism in the form of new approaches, technologies – and democracies’.

Digital brought new opportunities – and threats and in Switzerland, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation commissioned think tank Gottlieb Duttweiler Institut (GDI) to look into the digital future for the broadcaster. Its findings showed that ‘it is precisely at a time of upheaval in the media landscape that the SBC has the opportunity to position itself as an instrument of democracy’.

If Labour gets it right this time, public service will do more than just reflect our multi-cultural society.  Now that  the  neo-con con is  finally on its deathbed, what’s needed is a long overdue correction to ensure public service television takes its rightful place – at last.

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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.