Hard News by Russell Brown

Probably the wrong inquiry

If we're to have a select committee inquiry into TVNZ, would it be possible to have one that seriously explores the role and structure of the state broadcaster, rather than a hunt for political zingers? For all that the business of Susan Wood's contract has been a debacle, it's quite peripheral to the real issue of where we want TVNZ to go.

It's really impossible to tell from Georgina Te Heu Heu's burbling interview on Checkpoint yesterday exactly what terms of reference National will seek for the inquiry - there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of vision going on there - but I think Paul Norris's column for the Herald today is substantially correct. I'll quote it at length (from the Herald Premium Content blog, which has moved from Blogger to a LiveJournal format as a result of a DMCA complaint):

Opposition politicians calling for a public inquiry on the basis that a public asset is losing value reveal their failure to understand the charter or public broadcasting. Commercial value must not be the only measure of success. Where is their assessment of public value, of the social and cultural benefits that accrue from public broadcasting?

Commercial value does become a key factor if the asset is to be sold, which is certainly the cry from some critics. TVNZ has botched the job so badly there is nothing for it but to cut the losses and privatise - effectively the final abuse of a public asset. No doubt there could be a ready sale to a Murdoch or a Packer, but does anybody imagine that, when the chips are down, such foreign moguls would put our public interest before the private interests of their shareholders?

Their commitment to New Zealand programmes and stories would depend on how much money they could extract from NZ On Air for commercial programmes. Do we really want a return to the late 90s when a thoroughly commercial TVNZ refused NZ On Air money even for documentaries?

There are ways forward. The boldest strategy would be to encourage the public broadcaster to demonstrate that it can create more public value, especially from the opportunities afforded by the digital future.

TVNZ has been working for some time to create a digital free-to-air platform, together with CanWest and Prime. Once such a platform is launched, many new channels will be possible, indeed desirable, as new channels are one reason why viewers switch to digital.

TVNZ could create a number of new channels of largely charter content. One might be a factual channel, with new international documentaries, minority programmes at accessible times, and repeats of factual programmes. Other channels could be targeted at children, drama and the arts, or lifestyle.

Norris believes the dual remit - charter and commerce - can be made to work, but I'm ready to consider a case for radical change: perhaps even selling off TV2 and more clearly defining the public function of TV One. The strange and unhappy news this week that Frontseat is to have its run slashed and the NZ Festival season, which delivered the brilliant Colin McCahon: I Am documentary this year, will be gone in 2007 suggests that things are not working as they are.

I'm happy for charter money to be used to make charter programmes, but not for it to simply be a slush fund for commercial programming. For all the political excitement over TVNZ's news and current affairs activities, I've yet to meet a TVNZ journalist who is seriously unhappy with editorial management there. The broadcaster's ever-changing commissioning practices, on the other hand, warrant serious examination that they probably won't get.

There is much to be said in favour of New Zealand's contestable funding model - as the audiences and awards for TV3's Bro' Town and Outrageous Fortune testify - but there is a role that it cannot fulfil. To take but one example, Britain enjoys Freeview, a free-to-air digital TV service using cheap decoders available at retail, almost solely because the BBC weighed in behind the service.

(The irony here is that Freeview was also only possible because the digital terrestrial network was a sunk cost, left behind after the grisly collapse of ITV's private digital venture. The digital joint venture originally proposed by TVNZ in 1999 would very probably have resulted in a scandalous collapse - the prospective international partner, NTL, nearly went bankrupt in the year following - but after the smoke cleared it might have left us with some very handy transmission capacity.)

TVNZ does not enjoy, and will never, the £3 billion annual revenue that allows the BBC to act with the scope it does, but not everything in the vision requires piles of money. It's about redefining the public broadcaster's relationship with the public, and I'm beginning to lose faith that a patched-up version of a structure originally designed to prepare TVNZ for a trade sale can do that.