Britain has the BBC, Australia has the ABC, and even in the land of free enterprise, the Americans have a system of public television. One of the principles underpinning these ventures is to provide a platform for programmes unable to command a mass market that have social benefits.
The Key Government has been disdainful of such lofty thinking. At midnight on Saturday, the plug was pulled on TVNZ7 and public broadcasting in this country took another step backwards.
The social and cultural costs of being rid of New Zealand's only commercial-free television channel are incalculable, but the fiscal saving was negligible (only $16 million of Government spending can be diverted to other purposes) and the political damage seems minor, even though champions of the ill-fated channel brandish figures suggesting that 1.6 million people – more than one-third of the population – found something on it at least once a month that they preferred over programmes on other channels.
True, there have been protests since former broadcasting minister Jonathan Coleman last year announced the decision to discontinue TVNZ7's funding, but the protesters seem to have been academics, television producers and citizens inclined to elitist views about our culture. The Government accordingly can be confident that it will ride out the storm.
Labour has been keen to exploit the issue, but the decisions it condemns arise essentially from its own failure, when in government, to create a successful public broadcasting model that would reduce TVNZ's reliance on advertising revenue. It bequeathed to the incoming National Government the institutional arrangements in which TVNZ7 could be snuffed without significant murmurs of dismay from the public. National's greed for dividends from TVNZ delivered the coup de grace.
The Government's indifference to programming of the type screened by TVNZ was disquieting enough, but within hours of the plug being pulled, the Government renewed a contract allowing Media Works to run Kiwi FM for another six months. UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne railed against that decision, saying it was embarrassing and inconsistent. Worse than that, it turned dubious indifference to public broadcasting into disgraceful contempt.
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