What can be done about NZ TV?

Last updated 13:12 14/05/2012
Geoff Lealand
Fairfax NZ

CHANGING CHANNELS: Geoff Lealand does not see many positives in our current TV system.

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In our imminent digital TV future, Sky should pay towards the production of local programmes, suggest seasoned TV watchers.

"As a monopolistic and unregulated system, pay TV has milked us for far too long and it is time it returned something to the New Zealand viewer - funding more local production would be a good start."

That's Geoff Lealand, associate professor of screen and media studies at the University of Waikato.

Trisha Dunleavy, senior lecturer of the media studies programme at Victoria University, says public broadcasting, in the form of NZ on Air, TVNZ7 or a replacement, and Maori Television, should be funded from the public purse via a larger "vote broadcasting" and a profit levy on all TV networks. One can only imagine the squeals from broadcasters already pleading hardship. Sky TV's first-half net profit, however, was $62.6 million.

"In Sky's case such a levy would have the additional advantage of requiring Sky to contribute to the production of local content as opposed to getting this new content without any charge as it currently does," says Dunleavy. The absence of content regulation such as "must-pay" and "must carry" rules means that Sky can air NZ on Air-funded material without contributing to any of the production costs, she says.

Sky commissions little local content, and some of this material - the Heartland channel and children's programming - was originally funded via a proportion of public money. "No public-funded local content should be permitted to reside behind a pay TV wall at any stage of its life."

At the very least, Sky might help with a TVNZ7 replacement, says Paul Norris. The $16m a year digital channel, a beacon for lovers of grown- up, uncommercial TV but unloved by the Government, is to be turned into a one-hour-later repeat of TV One.

Sky could host and provide the administration and marketing for the channel, says Norris, who heads the NZ Broadcasting School at the Christchurch Polytechnic but was at one time a news and current affairs executive at TVNZ, while the state- owned broadcaster could deliver the news and the whole thing be run by a trust. "Certainly, there is an argument that Sky has benefited from our very light-handed regulatory regime and should therefore contribute to a public service offering." Under this arrangement, the costs of programmes for the channel could be in the region of $15m to $20m per year, he says.

"I have suggested that this modest sum could come from the forthcoming digital dividend - the windfall to Government from the sale of the old analogue frequencies. Apparently, Cabinet has ruled this out."

When Fairfax NZ asked those whose job it is to watch our television its faults - and strengths - ahead of the digital switchover, they all cited its unrelentingly commercial nature, which in turn causes a lack of programming diversity. New Zealand politicians have seldom challenged the idea, alone in the Western world, that an entertainment-heavy, money- generating medium is the only model.

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Programmes that fall, by intention or accident, into the category of quality public broadcasting, ie not driven by ratings or the demographics required by advertisers but by social or cultural needs, are the "occasional sultanas in the fruitcake of our television diet", says Norris.

Sure, NZ on Air's Platinum Fund pays for some, such as proper dramas, documentaries or the political current affairs programmes, but outside TVNZ7 they are usually ghettoised into Sunday mornings. There is a choice of public-minded TV, several note - but only if you pay. In the two decades pay TV has been around, half the country have opted for it; the rest can't or won't pay.

But the static funding for NZ on Air, the body whose job it is to dole out money for when there is "market failure", is only one element. Lealand notes the way in which NZ On Air "is beholden to the broadcasters in respect of what gets to air". The absence of content regulation is also a killer for the majority of viewers - still over 60 per cent of the audience - relying on free to air channels. Says Dunleavy: "Sport, children's programming and certain forms of imported drama are disappearing from the broadcast schedule because of the lack of any regulation to prevent this." They worry that as more mainstream programming disappears, NZ on Air will be forced to fund all local content.

The absence of content regulation is also allowing Sky to distort the market via its purchasing of multi-platform rights to new-season imported shows, some of which air first on the Sky- owned Prime. It's delaying the establishment of online pay TV services such as Netflix and Apple TV. This in turn provides excuses for illegal downloaders, which does nothing for the bottom lines of broadcasters.

Positives are few. Lealand says broadcasters have provided some good staple television such as 20 years of Shortland Street. "But they remain risk-adverse and obsessed with the fraudulent currency of Peoplemeter audience measurement."

Nevertheless, we are remarkably loyal to what we have. Dunleavy says it is telling that "the vast majority of audience eyeballs remain trained upon a small group of broadcast channels, which are namely TV One, TV2, and TV3, whose individual primetime audience share averages for 2012 amount to 64.1 per cent of our viewers".

Commentators say the digital switchover will not affect choice. "It simply requires consumers to upgrade their equipment or switch to Sky," says Norris. Says Lealand: "Digital gives you a clearer image but the accelerating emphasis on commerce in television means there is less worth watching."

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that digital delivery lets us catch up on programmes through services such as on-demand and New Zealand On Screen.

Norris says broadband internet will help viewers move towards the much- heralded "me-channel", where the viewer determines their own schedule. But most of this content will be from international sources or on-demand access to local programmes that have already been broadcast. Musgrave and Norris see only a growth in productions for niche audiences.

In a perfect world with a government that cared about public TV, the NZ on Air system would continue but its income would be indexed to inflation, perhaps alongside a charge on commercial broadcasters. Both Maori TV, which promotes te reo and tikanga Maori at a cost of $35m per year, and a form of TVNZ7 would continue. Musgrave says broadcasters need quotas so that we continue to "reflect ourselves to ourselves". Lealand suspects the audience will increasingly be divided: those who watch in the traditional, communal way; and those who watch via other routes such as online. "Nevertheless," he adds, with what pessimists might see as hope, "it will be the programmes we continue to talk about."

- Sunday Star Times

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