A change is gonna come, TVNZ

Last updated 10:55 11/03/2013

This interview with TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick is a really interesting, and revealing, read.

Among other things, the chief says that TVNZ is in the "video content" business, citing figures to do with on-demand content - and to a degree he's right; shows like Auckland Daze (which ended up getting a run on One) and The Carrie Diaries are just two fairly high-profile shows to be launched on the network's website, rather than on one of the channels.

Kenrick also references one of the big problems the network faces: "The US networks expect 70 per cent of their shows to fail. There is no way we could run our business like that. We need 95 per cent of them to really fire." Kenrick is saying that the network needs 95 per cent of the shows they put to air to rate well, to make money - in order to make sure that, as writer Steve Kilgallon points out, TVNZ will return a dividend to the government.

As Kilgallon writes earlier in the piece:

It's not just [his own viewing habits] which suggests he won't be championing expensive, highbrow television. Public service TV, he says, is the domain of New Zealand On Air, almost as if it divests TVNZ of any responsibility to take on tough programming without NZOA money ... Kenrick once remarked that he would only commission "commercial" TV. Pressed, he says it's not that clear-cut, but it's easy to say yes to money-making TV, and TV which loses money has to have a "very high" value to the viewer.

We often chastise TVNZ for delivering a high proportion of reality television and light entertainment*. But, in a way, their hands are tied by the need to make a profit, and the profile of who they answer to. The fact is that lowbrow reality fare rates well. TVNZ are terrified of ratings parity - hence the 95 per cent comment Kenrick makes - because such a television environment would mean less profit for the state broadcaster.

Sure, TV3 and Four (Mediaworks) are under the same remit to make money. But Mediaworks is already behind TVNZ in the ratings, meaning they have more to gain by taking a few risks like fast-tracking shows from the States or devoting more screen time to local programming.

Mediaworks also has a significant advantage in that it doesn't have to deal with the government on a regular basis. At least, not to the same extent that TVNZ does. If anything, the interview with Kenrick makes it sounds as though he (and, by extension, TVNZ) doesn't really understand his company's relationship with the government. I don't mean to say that TVNZ doesn't know what it's doing; I am positive that they do.

It's more that the government hasn't exactly made its own role in regard to TVNZ clear, not to the public or perhaps to TVNZ itself.

For a start, it isn't NZ On Air's job to provide a public broadcasting service; it funds local projects. If Kenrick really believes that, then I can't help but think that its role has been explained badly at a higher level. Even if public service was part of their purview, TVNZ doesn't seem too keen to help - of the 11 funding decisions in December 2012, only four were for projects on our two highest-rating channels, One and TV2.

Kenrick also remarks that he is "pleased [TVNZ] are required to deliver a return. If we weren't, the risk could be that we become fat, dumb and happy, and inefficient in the way we operate." Yet the direction when this National Government changed the charter a couple of years back was to "showcase a national identity". The way TVNZ's channels are programmed now, at least in prime time, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were showcasing Australia's national identity, or England's national identity.

I don't know what the answer is. Maybe TVNZ's relationship with the government needs to be severed so the network is forced to operate on its own and up its game. Or maybe the government needs to give TVNZ a much stronger charter around decent television - at least, something more pointed than "showcase a national identity". Sure, they're winning the ratings on a regular basis but, with few exceptions, it just isn't good television.

Either way, something needs to change at the state broadcaster, because the poo-poo-platter of second-rate reality and docudrama needs to go. As large, and as dominant in the ratings, as it may be, its reputation among viewers is at an all-time low; for example, one Twitter user - discussing an ill-advised tweet from a TVNZ personality - commented that the tweet "sums up the contempt TVNZ shows audiences". I think that's a bit harsh, but it gives you an idea of what people are thinking and saying - how long till that becomes the most pervasive opinion of the largest television network in the land?

Furthermore, TV3 has tasted victory in key time slots now. Blood is in the water. And with the advancement of Sky TV and internet alternatives (what if Netflix suddenly arrived in NZ?!) into territory that TV One would normally occupy, change is coming whether TVNZ is ready for it or not.

What do you think: does TVNZ need to make a change in its programming? What do you think the answer is?

(*) Interestingly, I wrote this and wondered if it was actually the case - for the next five evenings, 7.30pm till 10.30pm, One is devoting 8 hours (of a possible 15) to reality shows and unscripted light entertainment. Unsurprisingly, TV2 is second with 7.25 hours, TV3 is in third with 6.5 hours, and Prime and Four bring up the rear with 6 and 4.5 respectively.

(**) And, y'know, generally listening to what viewers actually want.

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