“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?
- 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…