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Maori Television: sporting champions or spoil-sports?

As the row over Maori Television’s bid for the free-to-air rights to broadcast 16 games from the Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2011 rumbles on, is this actually about what’s on the telly, or the skin colour of the people delivering it to us?

The $3 million is well spent. It’s cheaper than just about any survey the government could have come up with to show what attitudes towards Maori are like, and the responses are so delightfully supportive. If nothing else, the money tells us that we’ve got a long way to go.

The previous government (the one that chartered TVNZ into the fine state it’s in today) put a stop to TVNZ using public funds to bid for sporting events rights, on the grounds that it was – don’t laugh – anti-competitive.

If everybody was unhappy with TVNZ dipping into the taxpayer’s wallet to support sporting coverage, why should it be different now? Well, actually, nobody asked ‘everybody’. If they had asked everybody, “Do you want TVNZ using your taxes so you can see the Olympics or do you not want to see them at all?” the answer would have been a very resounding vote in favour of hanging on to the cheap sets and occasional doses of dodgy commentary.

But it’s not actually the money that’s at the heart of most of the complaints. It’s the fact that Maori Television is an unknown quantity when it comes to major international sporting events. And, in many cases, the complaint is simply that it’s Maori Television, and in kneejerk land it’s simply that they’re Maori.

It seems we were happy – or at least prepared to put up with – Maori dabbling away at television for themselves, but don’t trust them on the big stage.

The “Nobody does it like TVNZ” brigade had a little warm-up last week over the Commonwealth Games and now they’ve built up a head of steam (just under their starched collars).

The brigade is right. Nobody does do it like TVNZ. However, TVNZ is not doing it now, well or otherwise. And not doing it “like TVNZ” means only doing it differently, not doing it better or worse (although the latter assumption underpins most of the criticism of Maori Television’s bid).

We find ourselves back in a situation where taxpayers’ money will be spent on sporting rights (if the bid is successful). However, it’s on the one sporting event that is like kryptonite to this nation: our quadrennial attempt to convince the world that we can turn up and not choke when it matters.

We don’t have much choice about the turning up bit this time around, because we’re hosting the damn thing. As for the rest … we’ll see.

Considering how much money went into securing the rights to host the RWC, considering what the country is going to make from it, from international guests visiting, staying in hotels, travelling around, eating in restaurants, drinking our beer over here, getting drunk and arrested and paying fines, we’re on a winner.

Considering how much taxpayer money has been wasted so far on the proposals for the much-derided Waterfront Stadium alone, $3 million just isn’t very much in the grand scheme of things.

Admittedly, it’s more moolah than TVNZ’s annual profit this year, but what isn’t? It’s not even a dollar per capita. If we all chipped in half a cent a week between now and kick-off we’d have it covered.

One can understand John Key being miffed that the announcement was made without him having been consulted and apparently learning about it, as the rest of us did: after the fact. It’s not a good look for a PM, but it’s hardly the end of democracy. Did Bill English tell the boss before salting away taxpayer money into his mortgage? Doubtful.

Maori Television aims to build and retain audiences by providing the free-to-air coverage. The first part is a given, the second a gamble. It’s not something that’s worked for TVNZ in the past, as the network has admitted in statements about relinquishing the Commonwealth Games.

However, Maori Television is not TVNZ. Everybody knows what TV One’s offer is, and most already have the habit of enjoying it or of preferring other channels’ fare. Maori TV’s offer has not been sampled by a large number of New Zealanders, so the outcome for the channel of building viewer numbers by this strategy is less predictable.

What has left a rather sour taste over this whole affair has been the presumption of many critics, subtly woven between the lines, that Maori Television will not do a good job simply because it’s Maori Television. They’re not up to it.

They will indeed do a different job to what we’re used to, and that will be better, and worse, and just as good as what’s gone before at different times during the tournament. The job is coverage of sporting events. There isn’t a script. Things go wrong. We’ve lived through it before and we will again.

Will viewers hear words some, or many, don’t understand? Probably. Will it impact adversely on their enjoyment of the games? It’s unlikely. Will viewers tire of repeated exposure to elements of Maori culture during the RWC? Possibly. Were there regularly repeated annoying bits in coverage of major sporting events when other broadcasters had them? Always.

Will it be the best free-to-air coverage of a RWC ever? Probably not. Does it matter? Not really, no. Very few people’s first time was much to write home about.

We’ll get to see the games and the skills displayed on the field, the referees’ abilities to manage the games and the final scores will mostly determine our level of enjoyment or otherwise.

Maori Television put out a dignified statement on Monday to counter some of the claims being made. Next week, after the decision is made, it will probably put out another to announce whether or not it has been awarded the free-to-air rights.

Quite frankly, we should be far more concerned about whether the men in black will rise to the occasion and deliver the goods in 2011 than about whether the men and women in brown will.

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