Saving TVNZ 7 is in public interest

Last updated 09:23 09/05/2012

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PAUL NORRIS counters a Press editorial this week on the end of the free-to-air television channel TVNZ 7, to argue that it is worth saving.

I wish to take issue with the editorial in The Press (May 7) on the demise of TVNZ 7 and its questionable assumptions that either the channel offered little worth saving or the content will be found elsewhere.

TVNZ 7 deserves to survive because it is the last oasis of non-commercial public broadcasting in an otherwise wholly commercial television landscape (we should note the special position of Maori television).

TVNZ 7 is an important public space where the programme schedule can be determined not by ratings or the demands of advertisers, but by the social and cultural needs of audiences that the advertisers don't want to reach.

To give TVNZ its due, it had made a good job of programming the channel.

It contains arguably the best hour-long news programme, along with a range of local and international documentaries of substance, some of which covered the economic or business issues the editorial suggested was missing.

Then there are a series of local (New Zealand-made) programmes aimed at specialist or niche audiences - Media 7 for followers of media, Back Benches for political aficionados, The Good Word for book-lovers or Hindsight for those interested in our history, to name but some.

Despite the channel's lack of promotion, these programmes had gained a loyal following and deserve better than to be derided as "stuff about novelists, sculptors, painters and the like".

This dismissive tone sits oddly against the generally appreciative arts coverage in The Press.

The editorial suggests that any gaps left by the closure of the channel "will be quickly filled".

This sounds like touching faith in the neoliberal mantra that the market will provide all that we need. The reality is that in television the market works to satisfy the mass audiences demanded by the advertisers, and there is evident market failure to provide programmes of the kind found on TVNZ 7.

Consider the prime time schedules of the commercial free-to-air channels - endless American crime series, American sitcoms, international variations of cooking shows, freak shows masquerading as documentaries.

This is surely a limited diet.

The editorial says that "if public service programmes are worth making, NZ On Air is there to see they get made". True up to a point, in that NZ On Air has a remit to promote our identity and culture and to fund programmes for minorities.

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The problem is that the broadcasters are the gatekeepers - NZ On Air can only fund programmes if the broadcasters will agree to find a place in their schedules for them.

The climate in which NZ On Air has to operate has recently become markedly more commercial.

The Government has removed TVNZ's Charter, and thus any public service obligations, meaning that TVNZ is now a fully commercial broadcaster, required to maximise its profits, return a dividend to the Treasury and provide a 9 per cent return on its assets. So TVNZ is not likely to be receptive to proposals from NZ On Air for specialist or minority programmes, unless they can be placed in the commercial free zone on Sunday mornings, a zone the broadcasters would like to see gone.

None of the local programmes on TVNZ 7 has found a home elsewhere - hardly surprising in an increasingly commercial environment.

We should not blame TVNZ for the closure of TVNZ 7, or its replacement with a TV One Plus One channel. It is government policy not only that TVNZ must operate as a fully commercial broadcaster, but that the government funding for TVNZ 7 should cease as of June.

This could be regarded as an abject failure of government policy, in that ministers seem to have little genuine understanding of the importance of public broadcasting or indeed any appetite to retain it.

Ministers too are fond of declaring that in New Zealand public broadcasting in television is NZ On Air. For the reasons given above, NZ On Air's power is limited, making this a thin view of public broadcasting.

High speed broadband and the internet may well add to the digital cornucopia of video and programmes available to those who wish to seek them out. But almost all such programmes will be from international sources. Indeed the overwhelming amount of accessible foreign content makes it all the more important that we continue to find ways to generate New Zealand content - our voices, our stories, told in our way.

Essentially this is a political problem requiring a political solution. When the decision was made by the Labour-led government of Helen Clark in 2006 that TVNZ's two new digital channels TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 should be funded for six years, some thought was given to how they might continue.

One idea was that once they had built an audience, they would have a value to the pay broadcaster Sky.

But in the event, TVNZ allowed Sky to have TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 on its platform for no payment. For this survival plan to have worked, regulation would have been needed requiring Sky not only to carry these channels but also to pay for them.

The Labour-led government's review of broadcasting would have considered regulation but it moved too slowly and was quickly shut down by the incoming National government in 2008.

Various ideas have been put forward to save TVNZ 7, but none has gained traction. Despite this and however doomed the channel may be, there are those continuing to fight to save it.

Viewers who believe it is vital that we have a non- commercial platform as some form of counter to the dominance of commercial interests should speak up loudly now.

Tell the Government we do not accept its decision to close TVNZ 7. Sign the petition at www.savetvnz7.co.nz.

Surely as a nation we deserve better than this.

Paul Norris is a senior staff member of the New Zealand Broadcasting School at CPIT. He is the co-author of a recently completed evaluative study of NZ On Air 1989-2011.

- The Press

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