Hard News by Russell Brown


It appears that TVNZ's unexpectedly unearthed third-channel plan might not be news to some people as much as it was to the rest of us. But those people might not be all that happy about it.

TVNZ's man in Wellington, Richard Griffin, told the Weekend Herald that the motivation for the programme was Parliament's desire to have its proceedings broadcast. Oddly enough the same thing has been on Sky Television's mind: in a Dom Post column last week, Vernon Small outlined Sky's "detailed proposal for a dedicated [Parliamentary] channel [put] to the secretive Parliamentary Services Commission (Official Information Act users need not apply)." Small continued:

That came in response to Parliament's Standing Orders committee report, which recommended investigations last year into an in-house feed be "expedited" with a view to starting in 2004-05.

TVNZ has in the past expressed interest too, but there are signs that the Sky proposal is likely to get politicians' approval. This would bring all the "action", when the House is in session, free-to-air to anyone with a satellite dish.

The pay TV channel's lobbyist, Tony O'Brien, has written to all MPs outlining the proposal, which would cost Parliament about $3 million in set-up costs, including a digital archive, and annual operating fees of more than $500,000.

The ever-diligent O'Brien was presumably himself the source for Small's fascinating column. So is Sky trying to cut off a TVNZ bid by going public? Or is TVNZ just piggybacking on Sky's detailed proposal? Either way, this will get interesting - and, probably, exquisitely political.

Other elements of the TVNZ prop will be familiar to Auckland's Triangle Television, which put a detailed proposal to TVNZ, aiming to share or lease unused TVNZ satellite transponder space to (according to the copy of the Stratos prop that landed on my desktop yesterday) "provide a national free-to-air, 'best of the regionals', combined with SBS-style television channel similar to that currently offered by Triangle Television to the people of the Auckland region."

Among the advantages Triangle suggests in its plan is that it would help boost the number of "open" non-Sky satellite decoders (currently about 6000 nationwide), something TVNZ has been unable or unwilling to do, even when it had the chance to screen replays of Rugby World Cup games last year.

Triangle proposed that Stratos would provide a kind of "regional backbone" for other small broadcasters:

Stratos would also authorise other regional stations to download and terrestrially re-broadcast any programming they wished from its proposed national satellite feed, as long as the stations availing themselves of that service provide those downloads a free-to-air basis.

This would have the benefit of broadening the range of programming available to regional broadcasters and also provide a digital platform on which they could screen selected local shows.

It would also help to establish local television in smaller regional areas where programme availability or access was restricted, by providing a steady feed of supplementary programming.

Apart from the obvious - that TVNZ apparently plans not to use its idle satellite capacity but its idle UHF frequencies - there would appear to be many similarities between Stratos and the kind of channel TVNZ is proposing. Triangle could fairly claim that it has far more expertise in this kind of programming than TVNZ does.

TVNZ, on the other hand, could point out that its former digital plans called for niche, regional and community channels. Its dabbling with community television goes a long way back, and includes the award-winning LocalLink experiment under Reg Russ, which somehow got lost between strategies a few years ago.

I should note that if you go ploughing through old TVNZ reports and strategies, as I have been this week, you can find pretty much any philosophy you care to name. The 1997-98 Ord Minnett TVNZ scoping report - commissioned by Treasury to provide a case for selling the broadcaster asap ("the need to obtain a strategic equity partner for TVNZ is immediate")- is almost comically dry and, as it turns out, not very prescient.

I guess we'll eventually find out what TVNZ's current strategy is (is the long-term plan for those UHF frequencies another try at digital terrestrial broadcasting?), and how it got there and when - they declined an invitation to discuss strategy on The Wire this week. But in the meantime, our broadcaster is certainly managing to piss people off.

BTW, I understand the TiVo-like Sky Plus PVR decoders available in Britain are still nowhere on Sky New Zealand's horizon (grrrr …) but that next year we might see a move to dishes with twin LNBs (that's the arm with a knob on it that faces your dish) - presumably to allow it to deliver more channels, perhaps from a different bird.