Don’t go there: the ongoing undermining of PSB in New Zealand

In the sorry book on Public Service Broadcasting’s travails world-wide in the age of neo-Liberalism, New Zealand occupies chapter one. There the undermining of the BBC look-alike NZBC began early. The attack really got underway with a wave of reform in 1988-1991. And it ain’t over yet.

Trisha Dunleavy
24 February 2014

After decades of struggle to retain public service television (PSTV) New Zealand has moved further away from delivering on any traditional definition of this in the last four years.

Today’s situation owes much to what happened in the period 1988-91 when New Zealand’s television landscape underwent a radical neo-liberal remodelling and extensive deregulation. As a result, and in the context of a much broader neo-liberal restructuring and rationalisation of public resources, there was a downsizing of expectations and provisions for PSTV. Most crucially, New Zealand’s neo-liberal experiment in television included the commercialisation of the former monopoly public network, Television New Zealand (TVNZ), from which direct public funding and historic ‘public service’ objectives were removed.

Much has happened in the intervening years, including an abortive attempt through the imposition of a public service charter in 2002, to return a PSTV role to TVNZ. However, the structures and expectations forged during and following this network’s commercialisation seem to have cast a very long shadow. One striking element of this is a misplaced notion that it is possible for TVNZ, as a public network operating in a deregulated, intensely competitive media environment on an income derived from the sale of advertising, to somehow still deliver PSTV outcomes. Another is the expectation that TVNZ should, instead of reinvesting any profits into PSTV programming, focus on maximising these, returning them back to the Crown as a dividend. Although such ideas would be laughed out of parliament in other countries, this has not been the case in New Zealand. The TVNZ Charter was revoked in 2011, and today TVNZ, which continues as a state-owned corporation, remains in the ‘strictly commercial’ position in which it was first placed in 1988.

The commercial orientation of TVNZ does not mean that New Zealand retains no publicly-funded TV services, since two institutions with a vital PSTV role remain. The longest-standing of these is New Zealand on Air (NZoA), a public broadcasting agency which, operating since 1989 on a budget designed to subsidise rather than fully fund domestic TV production (or ‘local content’), continues to allocate funding to specified categories of TV production. In the presence of other requirements on NZoA, the majority of these subsidised programmes air on the leading broadcast channels by share, TVNZ’s TV One and TV2, and Mediaworks’ TV3. Together, these channels regularly hold some 62 per cent of TV audience eyeballs in peak hours. The second PSTV institution is the Māori Television Service (MTS), introduced in 2004, and whose flagship channel is Māori TV. Although receiving a tiny slither of advertising revenue, this operates as a non-commercial public TV network, whose small (less than 2 per cent) share of the total TV audience underscores both its specialist focus on nurturing New Zealand’s indigenous Māori language and culture, and its youth relative to the above channels.

What is missing from this New Zealand PSTV landscape will be painfully obvious to readers of his site. New Zealand, to its national shame and to the detriment of potentials for a better informed society and better functioning democracy, does not have a centrepiece PSTV channel: one that operates entirely free from the demands of advertisers, is universally available to citizens at no direct cost, and that caters to a general audience (from toddlers to retirees) in the manner of a traditional BBC One. Until 1989, this role was performed by TV One. Māori TV, the flagship channel of MTS, meets some of these specifications, yet is a complement rather than a substitute for the kind of PSTV channel described above. This is not least because Māori TV was created to serve a specialist purpose (to foster Māori language and culture) as opposed to a delivering PSTV to a broader audience.

The absence of a mainstream PSTV channel has been all the more keenly felt by the many remaining supporters of public broadcasting in New Zealand in recent years. This is because not one, but two such channels, TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, were established and had operated a successful (if underfunded) non-commercial service for several years. These channels were created in 2006, by which point it was clear that the TVNZ Charter – fatally flawed by a political expectation that it was possible to provide PSTV, despite a context of commercial TV schedules, a formal obligation to maximise profitability, and TVNZ’s continuing reliance on advertising revenue – had failed. Even though TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 were welcomed by viewers and were operated at minimal public cost, a new government decided that neither was worthy of continued public investment. In early 2011 the country lost TVNZ6, and in mid-2012, TVNZ7. The loss of not one but two PSTV channels so soon after they were created, underlines how New Zealand public television has moved from the decades of struggle that followed TVNZ’s 1988 commercialisation, to today’s all-out crisis.

The political indifference to public television that made it possible to simply close TVNZ7 in 2012, is difficult to fathom since it was clearly succeeding as a mainstream PSTV channel. This is not to imply that the channel went down without a concerted struggle to retain it. The protest began when media academics sent an ‘Open Letter’ to the government in April 2011. Helping to seed the more concerted and ongoing ‘Save TVNZ7’ campaign that followed, the letter made the broader case for public television before outlining how the new channels had contributed to the achievement of it. It also acknowledged a continuing trend in New Zealand by which the greatest diversity and selection of quality programming, instead of being universally available as it had been in the past, was increasingly confined to the wealthier half of New Zealand households who could afford to purchase a subscription from the multi-channel provider, Sky TV. The letter argued, for example, that:

TVNZ 7 and (until March 2011) TVNZ 6 showed that public service channels can consistently offer choices that commercial channels do not. For the first time in many years Kiwis had local commercial-free entertainment and quality children’s programming, exploration of art and cultural issues along with in-depth quality news and current affairs programmes. The loss of TVNZ 6’s Kidzone is particularly concerning because 6 was the only channel offering high quality commercial-free programming for children. Now this channel has been locked behind a pay-wall which means that only some of our children will have access to these programmes. Meanwhile, TVNZ 7 carried programmes dealing with politics, media, and the courts that no commercial channel would touch in primetime.

As the letter also suggested, public television is especially important in view of the traditional constraints on the functioning of an expensive medium like television in a small English-speaking market of just 4.4 million people. Rather than making public television seem irrelevant or obsolete, as the government, when justifying its decision to cease funding TVNZ7, argued it was, these same market characteristics surely render public television even more vital. Historically, and as far as non-commercial investment in it has allowed, New Zealand’s public television has helped to counter the inevitable failure of commercial channels not just to provide an appropriate range of programmes, but also to ensure that these include sufficient local content to reflect New Zealand’s distinctive interests, perspectives, and identities.

The current state of PSTV provisions in New Zealand – to say nothing of the raft of additional problems afflicting the country’s broader TV landscape and the sustainability of its broadcast networks – is reflected in four indicative (yet resolvable) problems. Individually and together, these also demonstrate some important impacts of the current dearth of public investment and political commitment to public television in New Zealand.

First is the country’s internationally low per capita level of public investment in television. In the 2013 financial year, a total of NZ$164.2 million in public funding (or 82.1 million British pounds) was invested in television. Although some readers may see this a reasonable sum in view of New Zealand’s small population, it places New Zealand second from the bottom in terms of PSTV investment by the group of eighteen countries surveyed in 2011 by the Nordicity Group. These included small as well as larger countries and among them was Denmark, a country of proximate population size to New Zealand, which was placed at fourth highest in terms of its own per capita PSTV investment. The continuing paucity of public investment in television is even more difficult to justify when we consider New Zealand’s alleged ‘rock star’ current economic performance relative to so many other countries, along with the so-called ‘Pacific Tiger’ potential ascribed to it recently by one of the government’s most senior ministers, Steven Joyce.

Second is the ‘strictly commercial’ footing of state-owned broadcaster, Television New Zealand, which has remained little changed since its direct public funding was removed in 1988. As noted earlier, the most notorious exception to TVNZ’s singular pursuit of commercialism was the short-lived period (from 2002-09) when, even as its reliance on advertising continued, the then Labour government imposed a hopelessly ambitious BBC-like Charter on the network via the 2003 TVNZ Act. Albeit a well-intentioned effort to return a PSTV role to the public network, the Charter was fatally flawed by its requirement that TVNZ deliver ‘public service’ at the same time as maintaining its commercial profitability. Although the ambition of this Charter was laudable, it was pursued in the context of TVNZ’s 95 per cent reliance on advertising revenue, which persisted throughout the Charter years. These were all the more traumatic times for TVNZ because the broader public, helped along by political and press misinformation about the funding situation, were never told why it was that TVNZ schedules were never going to look like those of a non-commercial public network. The political requirement for continued commercial profitability made for additional, conflicting pressures on TVNZ. When the Chartered TVNZ did not deliver the PSTV schedules that the public were led to expect (even though a sufficiency of public funding to deliver these was never provided), the network faced the most vitriolic criticism of its history. In view of the conflicting demands it brought, the Charter experience was nothing less than a living nightmare for TVNZ. The removal of its Charter, which occurred unofficially in late 2008 when the flow of NZ$15 million (7.5 million British pounds) in annual public funding that ‘supported’ it was ended, left TVNZ burned and bitter, and understandably so.

The Labour government’s acceptance that the Charter had failed – important to which was the realisation that the long since commercialised TV One and TV2 schedules simply could not host non-commercial programmes if TVNZ’s profitability were to be maintained – formed the background to the 2006 decision to create TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 as non-commercial channels and thereby separate TVNZ’s commercial and non-commercial services. The government allocated NZ$79 million to TVNZ for a six-year period (2007-12) to create the new channels and allow them to operate non-commercially. Generating another (Charter-like) funding challenge for TVNZ, however, this $79 million figure meant a notably lean budget for the channels. Significantly, the $79 million was not ‘new money’ for public television. Instead, NZ$70 million of it had been earned by TVNZ in 2006 and then paid to the government as a ‘special dividend’. This issue would emerge as particularly important, since a new National government had taken office by the time that this initial cache of funding for TVNZ6 and 7 ran out. As it was, the lack of provision by a Labour government for more sustained funding for the channels was one of the reasons that its National successor highlighted when announcing that public funding for TVNZ6 and 7 would not be renewed. TVNZ6 launched in October 2007 and TVNZ7 in March 2008. Whereas TVNZ6 combined education with entertainment programming, devoting significant parts of its schedule to pre-schoolers and families, TVNZ7 focused on the general audience, offering news, factual and arts programming. Bearing in mind how difficult it must have been to run two channels on such a shoestring budget, TVNZ really should have received more public acknowledgment for what it achieved with TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 than it did. Since these channels closed in 2011 and 2012, there has been no other ‘public’ dimension to TVNZ’s role, save its continued state ownership, its government-mandated focus on profit, and the annual dividend that it pays the Crown.

Third, and a consequence of commercialism’s overwhelming dominance of the broadcast television sector, is the absence, outside of Māori TV, of broadcast TV slots for programme forms other than those imbued with evident appeal to advertisers. This leaves New Zealand with a mostly advertiser-funded broadcast sector, even though the American experience of this form of broadcast TV has proved beyond any doubt that it limits the range, style and ambition of many forms of TV programming. Importantly, this situation is a consequence of the commercial footing of TVNZ, the network whose channels and shows still attract a combined primetime audience share of around 46 per cent. TVNZ’s pivotal influence within the broadcast sector has encouraged the aggressively competitive, ratings-driven and risk-averse culture that characterises this sector. Local TV producers will enthusiastically verify this. The shared tendency of TV One, TV2, and TV3 toward ‘risk-averse commissioning’ (a well-documented feature of American broadcast television culture) has reduced creative experimentation and formal range in the local content programming that is created for their schedules. The problem is most overt in primetime hours (6-10pm) and the programme areas most affected are current affairs, children’s, documentary, and arts. In contrast, Māori TV, the one non-commercial component of New Zealand’s broadcast TV sector, has been lauded for its risk-taking and achievements in these same programme areas, examples of which regularly grace the channel’s primetime slots. Bearing in mind that most NZoA-supported TV productions will air on one of the above commercial channels, ‘risk-averse commissioning’ is actively undermining NZoA’s ability to facilitate either the full range of programme categories and forms to which it is committed (drama, documentary, popular factual, arts, comedy, and music) or the full range of audiences (children, young people, and minority audience groups).

Almost 25 years old, NZoA has proven its ability to facilitate TV production in all these areas and its ongoing commissions remain vital to the maintaining of New Zealand’s independent screen production industry which has also expanded significantly since NZoA began. A longstanding requirement of NZoA’s funding allocations, however, derived from the limitations on its total budget and from anxieties about allocating public funds to programmes that will never air, has been that productions seeking NZoA funding have already secured a broadcaster’s commitment to screen them. Although this requirement has always held the potential to reduce public TV production to the programme forms that commercial networks are willing to place, aggressive competition has now rendered this a significant problem and it is difficult for TV proposals deemed ‘less commercial’ to gain the all-important broadcaster’s consent and thus access NZoA funding support so as to enter production. At the same time, TV audience awareness of the limitations on the range of local content programmes they can see on TV One, TV2 and TV3 has been heightened through the programming contrasts evident between the types of local content produced for these commercial broadcast channels as opposed to what is possible on non-commercial channels (Māori TV, and TVNZ7 prior to its closure). TV One, as the channel from which a PSTV performance is still expected, especially by viewers who can remember what it offered in the ‘good old days’, is regularly criticised for the ‘populist’ style of its news and current affairs.

Fourth, and perhaps the most significant limitation on the ambitions and possibilities for PSTV of all, is the unusually vexed relationship between public television and politics. This is reflected in the abrupt and marked change in political thinking about public television which occurs every time a general election produces a significant change of government. It has effectively thwarted the possibility of stability and forward progression for New Zealand’s public television. This sector has remained unusually exposed to political whim and subject to repeated restructurings, an ongoing pattern since the 1970s. Even though today there are several smaller political parties and their preferences have made a considerable difference to political decision-making, New Zealand politics (as in the 1970s) continues to be dominated by two parties, National and Labour. In the political posturing between the two parties, public television (potentially a big ticket item) has always functioned as a political football and lightning rod for the expression of their philosophical differences. This tendency has only intensified in the last decade. In office from 2000-08, the Fourth Labour government took significant, timely steps to strengthen public television. It gave TVNZ a PSTV Charter, created the Māori Television Service, established TVNZ6 and 7 when the Charter failed, and prepared television for the trouble-free digital switchover it is currently undergoing by funding a Freeview platform. In government since 2009, National has resisted any further progress in public television, a stance that is weakening New Zealand’s broadcast TV sector and strengthening the profitability of Sky TV. This government has also eroded important elements of the environment that Labour built, with TVNZ’s re-focussing on the exclusive pursuit of commercialism – as formalised by the 2011 TVNZ Amendment Act and reflected in the closure of TVNZ6 and 7 – being the best example.

Although New Zealand’s public television has languished in crisis since 2011-12, its process of repair could be achieved through a few achievable measures, the real challenge being that these all require the dedication of ‘new money’. At this early stage of 2014, an election year in New Zealand, there is hope among public television’s supporters that its future will become an election issue. One reason why it might, even though electioneering politicians have many portfolios vying for their attention and promises, are earlier undertakings by the Labour and the Greens, currently the two largest opposition parties, to re-establish a PSTV channel. Accordingly, the fate of public television may hang on how many votes Labour (the second largest party behind National) is able to get. The National government, together with its repeal rather than reworking of the TVNZ Charter, permitted the closure of TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, revealing its indifference to public television. Yet retaining TVNZ7, as a PSTV channel that had confirmed its value in just under four years of successful operation on an unusually lean budget, made sense.

The most pressing priority for New Zealand public television today is the re-establishment of a PSTV channel that serves the mainstream audience and thus complements the more specialised role of Māori TV. Even though TVNZ will be wary of hosting another such channel – in view of the insurmountable challenges and unprecedented level of vitriol it faced during the Charter years – it remains the ideal institutional host for several reasons. As evidenced by the level of public discussion and frustration that erupts in the press whenever TVNZ is perceived not to deliver the PSTV content that viewers still seek (a case in point being the flow of criticism as to the evident ‘fluffiness’ of TV One’s current affairs daily, Seven Sharp), TVNZ retains symbolic capital as the network from which viewers most expect PSTV. As TVNZ6 and 7 have shown, a TVNZ-domiciled PSTV channel is possible for a modest ‘new money’ commitment. Ideally this would be not less than an inflation-indexed NZ$25 million (12.5 million British pounds) per year. But a far higher figure (say NZ$50 million) would be required if the channel is created as a stand-alone entity, like the MTS. The more affordable option is uniquely possible for a TVNZ-domiciled PSTV channel in that it can access this network’s well-established in-house facilities and infrastructures. TVNZ7’s hour-long news bulletin, for example, drew directly on resources already supplying TV One’s news programmes. Other reasons why TVNZ is best positioned to host this channel are the rich cachet of archival local content on which TVNZ6 and 7 were able to draw, and the continuing ratings strength (with TV One retaining around 29 per cent share and TV2 around 17 per cent) of its channels, brand, and combined market share.

Repairing New Zealand public television is a process that would ideally centre on the reestablishment of TVNZ7, the little channel that has proved that it can deliver PSTV. Yet such an initiative will require the dedication of a sufficient and sustainable supply of ‘new money’ by a forward-looking, progressive government. The reestablishment of TVNZ7 would bring a final benefit in re-assigning an appropriate public role to the state-owned and still highly regarded TVNZ



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