OPINION: So TVNZ 7 is dead. Long live public broadcasting.
It was evident more than a year ago, when the Government said it would not continue the funding for TVNZ 7, that the channel could not be revived.
TVNZ, given its marching orders to be a fully commercial broadcaster and improve its financial performance, was happy to wash its hands of its last gesture towards non-commercial public broadcasting.
Yet the announcement of its closure prompted an uprising of public indignation and concern. There is obvious irony in that the publicity around its demise meant that many viewers suddenly discovered the delights of a channel they had not known existed. Viewing figures rose, to a level of some 1.6 million during a monthly period. A campaign to save the channel garnered 31,000 signatures.
But it's time to forget TVNZ 7. It is no longer the issue. The campaign will live on but will move to a new focus - to try to create a new vehicle for public broadcasting, meaning broadcasting driven by social and cultural needs rather than commercial pressures, ratings and the demands of advertisers.
There are some who will argue that broadcasting is old technology and that we should look to broadband and the internet as the key ways to distribute video content in the future. The new broadcasting minister, Craig Foss, may well be in this camp. So should we be looking at broadband rather than broadcast as the way forward for public broadcasting?
What we know is that more and more video is being viewed through the internet. Video made up 37 per cent of consumer internet content in New Zealand in 2010, with a forecast that this figure will reach 81 per cent by 2015. We also know that some commentators, including myself, have been predicting the rise of the me-channel for many years.
The me-channel is the new world where viewers are no longer slaves to the traditional broadcast schedule, but can select the programmes they want from a vast smorgasbord of content, for viewing when they want and on whatever device or screen they want.
It has to be admitted that the me-channel has been a long time coming, largely because there has not been enough compelling content available through the internet, and because downloads have been too slow or restricted by data caps.
But all this is changing - more programmes are becoming available and ultrafast broadband promises an end to delivery problems.
So could the future of public broadcasting lie in viewers trawling the internet for the sorts of programmes they have enjoyed on TVNZ 7 - quality imported documentaries, or a variety of local programmes aimed at niche audiences, such as political aficionados, book lovers, followers of media or the arts?
Should NZ on Air meet its obligations to fund minority programmes by creating a broadband "channel" to deliver these programmes online and thus bypass the need to gain a slot in their schedules from the commercial broadcasters?
There are obvious problems to this approach. The first is that it is a fundamental principle of public broadcasting that it be available to all. Broadband is far from universally available, although it is in more than 60 per cent of New Zealand households. Even the Government's ambitious rollout for ultrafast broadband only commits to achieving 75 per cent of the population by 2020. Among those excluded are those most likely to benefit from public broadcasting, notably the elderly.
The other major problem is the funding of content, especially local content (made in New Zealand). How would the local programmes mentioned above be funded? It is one thing for broadcasters or NZ On Air to fund programmes for their broadcast channels and then to place them online, but there is no incentive to fund programmes for online distribution only.
NZ On Air might consider this at some point in the future, but is making no commitment for the moment. So the conclusion is that broadband alone cannot be the saviour of public broadcasting at this time.
The broadcast medium will live on for many years yet - it is a truism that the death of broadcasting has been greatly exaggerated. Accordingly the new vehicle for public broadcasting will have to look to the broadcasting environment, which indeed is where the advocates are now focused.
The driver of the campaign to save TVNZ 7, Myles Thomas, will transform his campaign into what he describes as the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, an umbrella organisation for all groups who see benefits in public broadcasting.
But another advocate has a specific and ambitious goal. David Beatson, former broadcaster and a former chairman of NZ On Air, aims to establish a Public Media Foundation and a public broadcasting channel. Funding will be the most difficult challenge as the Government has made it clear it will commit no more money to broadcasting and has ruled out any kind of levy on the industry.
Mr Beatson is developing a structure and funding model for a non-commercial television service similar to the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in the United States, which relies in part on public donations. But we are a much smaller country, and we lack their big philanthropic foundations.
But this is a most important cause. We need public media as a counterpoint to the otherwise overwhelmingly commercial nature of our media. We need a public space where viewers can find programmes that are intelligent, thought-provoking and inspiring, programmes that prompt the debates and arguments vital to a healthy democracy.
Programmes such as those TVNZ, to its credit, chose to air in the final week of TVNZ 7. The Big Idea featured former US correspondent Tim Wilson leading discussion on such topics as New Zealand with a population of 15 million or can New Zealand teach the world to feed itself.
Going out with a bang, not a whimper. Classic public broadcasting. It can be done.
Paul Norris is a senior staff member of the New Zealand Broadcasting School at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He is the co- author of a recently completed evaluative study of NZ On Air 1989-2011.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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