Hard News by Russell Brown

59

Media3: Where is Broadcasting?

Here's a game I play with friends: we talk about ministers of broadcasting and who has actually been any good. in the past 20-odd years. It gets hard quite quickly.

The longest-serving Minister of Broadcasting in the present era has been Maurice Williamson, who served in the role from 1990 to 1996 and was responsible for broadcasting (and TVNZ) as Minister of Communications for National's final term in the nineties. So "Who was the Minister of Broadcasting from 1996 to 1999?" turns out to be a trick question. There wasn't one.

And well may the minister have wished to not be associated with those three years in broadcasting, which covered the disastrous firesale of TVNZ's Sky shareholding under the Roseanne Meo board, the Hawkesby debacle and the most disgraceful television programme ever produced in New Zealand.

Helen Clark appointed Marian Hobbs if not beyond her competence, then perhaps beyond her capacity as a new MP. As well as serving as Minister of Broadcasting, she was Minister for the Environment, Minister of Biosecurity and Minister Responsible for the National Library and Archives New Zealand. But she did oversee desperately-needed new funding for Radio New Zealand, and negotiated the voluntary New Zealand music quote for radio that helped transform the local music industry. The price of that deal was the loss of a potential youth radio network. Whether that was a good trade will be a matter of taste.

 In 2002, Steve Maharey took the job for which he'd apprenticed in the 90s. He brought a background in media studies and screeds of policy principles. His signal achievement was, finally, approving a transition to digital television, via Freeview.

In support of the new transmission system, he also established TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7. But he -- or his Cabinet -- lacked the nerve to make those channels permanent. The five years' funding (structured in an odd and unnecessarily complex way that saw TVNZ raise finance and effectively loan the money back to the government) expired without a sustainable plan for the channels' future.

That might have come through a must-offer-must-pay regulation (ie: Sky would have had to pay a mandated price for carrying taxpayer-owned channels, and that money would have helped fund the public service channels) from the broadcasting review that National quickly suffocated on taking office, but it didn't. Instead, Sky has filled a swimming pool with most of the cash in the television business.

Maharey's other great effort to square the circle of TVNZ's dual mandate, the TVNZ Charter, proved no more durable. By the time he left politics, you felt that Helen Clark had really given up on a vision. The appointment of Trevor Mallard as minister said that fairly amply.

Enter National's Jonathan Coleman, no more engaged with broadcasting than Mallard and even more risk-averse. I interviewed him four times and it started to feel like talking to a cardboard cut-out. I doubt he was too upset about moving onwards and upwards.

So, readers, can you name the current Minister of Broadcasting?

It's Craig Foss. I suspect even he would admit to have struck a very low profile in the job -- in part, no doubt, because his other duties (coughNovopaycough) have demanded much attention.

Foss is, I gather, smart enough, and quite capable of discussing markets, but it's hard not to feel there is very little focus going into broadcasting. Which is problematic. There are some significant issues looming as we head into the digital switchover this year. Sky may have hit a ceiling on growth (which is why Murdoch is selling out to institutional investors), but it has an unhealthy influence over the sector.

And, of course, NZ On Air is struggling to do more with less after four years of a funding freeze. Radio New Zealand's offerings are necessarily getting thinner. And while MPs have their salaries assessed upwards nearly every year, many people and companies who work in broadcasting and screen production are carrying the cost.

Anyway, you can hear what the minister has to say about all that after Nightline on Wednesday night -- or you can come along to the recording tomorrowing evening. Come to the ballroom of the Villa Dalmacija, 10 New North Road, by 5.30pm tomorrow (we'll start earlier so the minister can get away to another engagement) if you'd like to do that. The drinks are cheap and the conversation is excellent.

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