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TVNZ: new bill a model for what?

On Wednesday the government introduced the Television New Zealand Amendment Bill to scrap TVNZ’s Charter, implemented in 2003, paving the way for either a sustainable business model or an inept, fawning cash cow ready for sale, depending on your POV.

Unsurprisingly, it was Labour Broadcasting Spokesman, Brenda Burns, who was promoting the latter opinion.

The Charter was never a perfect solution from the get-go. Whether the new Bill makes things better depends on one’es point of view.

Way back in 2000, the then Screen Producers and Directors Association (SPADA), produced a report on establishing a quota system, one of its recommendations being:

“A TVNZ charter is necessary to provide a rationale for state ownership, to address the
needs of minority audiences and to embed notions of diversity, innovation and New
Zealand identity into both the structure of broadcasting in New Zealand and the
programmes consequently offered to New Zealand audiences.”
– TELEVISION PROGRAMME QUOTAS: A Blueprint for New Zealand, April 2000.

Certainly, Helen Clark’s government was more sympathetic than the current National-led coalition, both to the notion of public broadcasting per se and the amount of taxpayer support it should receive.

But reality bit, and the outcome was a balancing act: do this and do that, simultaneously.

In July 2000, Marian Hobbs, then Minister of Broadcasting, plumped for a charter over a quota, saying

“Successive governments have acknowledged a role in ensuring that desired kinds of broadcast content are available to the New Zealand public in addition to what may be provided commercially. The objectives that Cabinet has endorsed will guide the development of our broadcasting policies and ensure that public needs are met.”

And so it was born, although it took another two years to come into law and until March 2003 to become effective.

The Charter was not immune to criticism when it was introduced, its ideals tempered by the pragmatic need to provide a dividend to the government of the day. Some called it impossible to achieve both aims, and proponents of the public broadcaster argument have regularly pointed to the need to provide a dividend as weakening TVNZ’s public service offer over the last few years.

Speaking at the Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA) AGM, shortly after the implementation of the charter, Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey said:

“Delivering a wider range of audiences to advertisers is critical to the industry’s success and it also fulfils the government’s objective of ensuring TVNZ’s programming choices have wide appeal, while meeting the needs of particular audiences who have been ignored in the past.

“We expect that this will be particularly valued by advertiser since, TVNZ, as the national broadcaster, can deliver major audiences in an increasingly fragmented media environment.”

However, at the same meeting he also said:

“Last year television advertising across all networks was the highest return ever reported by the industry. As a chartered public service broadcaster TVNZ can be expected to repeat the success of similar networks overseas, like the BBC …”

which perhaps demonstrates some of the confusion surrounding what sort of public broadcaster TVNZ was supposed to be, since the BBC derives its income – and therefore its ability to make, acquire and commission programming – from a guaranteed (arguably generous) licence fee, not a fluctuating advertising spend.

The Charter was never going to turn TVNZ into a BBC imitator, because it never had sufficient money attached to enable TVNZ to pump out the sheer volume of local programming necessary to create a NZ feel for even one of the channels.

None of what was contained in the charter is really controversial. Laying out that a public broadcaster should serve minority interests, cover current affairs, cultural and sporting matters, and provide a national and international service hardly represents a plan that is inconsistent with the aims of public broadcasters elsewhere.

If one can be bothered sifting through the 64 pages of the agreement between the BBC and the British government, the same requirements exist there, with the obvious exception of the requirement to “ensure in its programmes and programme planning the participation of Maori and the presence of a significant Maori voice.”

Some of the TVNZ charter obligations seemed unnecessary to include, for example the requirement for TVNZ to “play a leading role in New Zealand television by complying with free-to-air codes of broadcasting practise, in particular any code with provisions on violence”.

One would assume that other regulatory requirements, such as those administered by the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), would already have had that sort of thing covered.

National’s Broadcasting spokesman, Dr Coleman, has long opposed the charter, saying in 2007

When the Minister (Steve Maharey) says that the Government is committed to the core objective of building national identity and will do so through television, does he not realise that New Zealanders do not want to be told by the Government what their identity is, and that using a State-owned broadcaster to try to shape national identity is actually a feature of totalitarian regimes, not Western democracies; or does he secretly fancy himself as the “MP for Palmerston North Korea”?

Once it became clear last year that the Labour government was unlikely (he wrote, kindly) to be returned at the November election, the focus shifted to what a National-led government might do.

National’s then Broadcasting spokesperson, Dr Jonathan Coleman, spoke at the third reading of Labour’s Broadcasting Amendment Bill in March last year, saying Labour:

”has a failed broadcasting policy that has really shackled Television New Zealand (TVNZ). Basically, with the charter, TVNZ can be neither fully commercial nor fully public. It is caught in the middle, and its finances are getting a lot worse. This Government has managed to halve the value of TVNZ. Steve Maharey managed to cut the value of TVNZ by half, and if he had had another term as Minister, I reckon he would have got it right down to zero.”

National supported the Bill, but it was no surprise that their broadcasting policy, launched prior to last year’s election, laid the ground for the Charter’s removal, even if it didn’t say so directly.

Whether or not there one supports the present government, or believes its policy claim that it is not prepping the company for sale, the removal of the charter might not be a bad thing, if only for the reason that it helps TVNZ to stop pulling itself in conflicting directions and allows some clarity.

Accepting that the government has the numbers to pass the bill, what replaces it should be of more concern.

Most of the reporting of the event at present focuses on the abandonment of the public broadcaster status although many people have argued, both publicly and privately, that TVNZ has not been a public broadcaster for some time.

For the local industry, the removal of the charter presents both opportunity and challenge.

For other broadcasters and independent producers, opportunity exists in the form of the Platinum Fund, established to offset the removal of the Charter, and set at $15.1 million for the year ending June 2010. The fund, administered by NZ On Air (NZOA), focuses on specific outcomes in addition to the general fund and is contestable. The NZOA release, announcing the fund back in April, said the fund would support

“innovative content which may be currently difficult to find on our screens or which normally requires a high level of subsidy to get made. The programmes will be aspirational, intended to inform, educate and entertain” (NZOA emphasis)

It is too early to tell what impact and success the fund will deliver, and also to what extent other broadcasters might feel inclined to try to break into the “minority interest” areas of programming that have so far almost exclusively appeared within TVNZ’s schedules.

The Bill also contains a section of enabling legislation to provide a formal structure under which TVNZ can access its pre-NZOA vaults and broadcast programmes made before 1989.

Complicating the matter at present is the timing of the legislation, coming at the end of what’s been a very bad year for both major broadcasters financially. One obvious example of that was the agreement reached between NZOA and broadcasters earlier this year re: the reduction in licence fees and increased levels in NZOA support for programmes generally.

As for the outcome, with or without a charter, TVNZ will make programming decisions based on its own perception of the market. The charter, regardless of any conflicts it created, did bring about some changes in thinking within TVNZ and affect what programmes were commissioned. Whether TVNZ sees benefit in those programmes, and whether it will feel able to continue to support them without the charter, remains to be seen.

All broadcasters, but TVNZ more publicly than most, have had to make some unwelcome financial decisions over the last year. Focusing on the effects of the removal of the charter is tricky at present, as the waters are muddied by a recession and drop in advertising spend. It might be some time before the results are clear.

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