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Cutting the cords

As Maori Television confirms the departure of Julian Wilcox, TVNZ has announced it will put all Maori and Pacific programmes except Te Karere out to tender from next year.

The timing of both announcements – not in relation to one another – is interesting.

Wilcox hasn’t confirmed his intentions although some reports have him moving into a role “outside broadcasting”. His departure in early December will clear the decks of the highest-ranking members of the “old guard” who were either opposed to the appointment of Paora Maxwell as CEO or sought the position themselves.

From outside, it’s not a good look, and smacks of a dictatorial approach.

TVNZ, also no stranger to trying to dictate terms, finds its decision has led to different reactions.

In the TVNZ announcement yesterday CEO Kevin Kenrick said, “Maori and Pacific programming at TVNZ has a very long and proud history.”

These days, that in itself seems a good enough reason for TVNZ to ship it out as part of its increasing obsession with all that is new and shiny, profitable and preferably online.

Coming so soon after the election, the broadcaster’s decision will be seen by some as a strategy that might not have flown had Labour been returned to government. In response to TVNZ’s announcement, it seems the light touch observed by both previous Ministers for Broadcasting will continue with Amy Adams saying that TVNZ’s obligations were those of a commercial organisation and how it could “provide best value for the taxpayer”.

The independent production sector is likely to be little affected by the changes, for two reasons. With much of the programming to move out of house 100% funded, TVNZ has little incentive to disestablish no-cost local programming. Also, CEO Kevin Kenrick has notred, “Our intention would be to encourage external production companies to take on those who currently work for us so they can benefit from our people’s expertise.”

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that companies (new or old) including the personnel presently producing Maori and Pacific shows in-house will be at the front of the queue for the contracts to produce the shows externally.

According to TVNZ EP Stephen Stehlin, speaking on Radio NZ’s Checkpoint, he expected that his unit would secure the contract for Tagata Pasifika, which it presently makes inhouse.

What’s more concerning is a loss of knowledge and skill going forward. Once the staff are dispersed across separate, possibly competing, companies there’ll be fewer opportunities for growth and development. Few and far between are the independent production companies in NZ which do much more than survive.

For TVNZ, the move makes the production of Maori and Pacific programming consistent with the way much other programming is produced. With the possibility that the funding of Maori programming will become a more political affair if Pita Sharples Te Matawai policy is introduced, TVNZ might also prefer to be at arms’ length from those discussions.

Having the control of funding vested in a new iwi-based authority, possibly linked to Maori TV and the Maori Language Commission, is not something even Maori TV – at least its departing management – has called a good idea.

Labour’s broadcasting spokesperson, Kris Faafoi, expressed concern for those who would lose their jobs and asked: is TVNZ going to be a public broadcaster for much longer? Which puts somewhat behind most commentators who claim any pretence of fulfilling that role went out the window some time ago.