New Zealanders' Television: Obliterated almost completely from New Zealanders’ collective memory is the amazing collection of creative talent which was all-too-briefly assembled in the purpose-built Avalon television studios (above) situated ten miles north of the capital. If this period is recalled at all it is only for the purposes of laughing at the posh pronunciation and absurd hairstyles of the era’s ridiculously clunky (by contemporary standards) broadcasters.
WHO WILL RESCUE TV3? Almost certainly not the private sector. Not only is the commercial free-to-air broadcasting model broken, but TV3 remains burdened by its previous owners’ insatiable appetite for debt. These formidable liabilities have fatally undermined the network’s return to profitability. Even without the migration of advertising revenue to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and YouTube it would have continued to bleed money. Given these disadvantages, the probability of TV3 finding a private sector buyer is close to zero. Which leaves the obligation to rescue TV3 resting squarely with the New Zealand state – which is to say, with us.
Not that you’ll hear this, the most obvious long-term solution, articulated by many of those speculating on the fate of New Zealand’s most innovative and downright bolshie television network. “Nationalisation” is one of those words it is forbidden to utter in twenty-first century New Zealand without spitting on the ground. Public ownership is almost always rendered by media pundits as “government owned” or “state controlled” – as if Jacinda Ardern, in addition to being New Zealand’s prime minister, would instantly become TV3’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Accordingly, public ownership is branded unequivocally as a “bad thing” – the first stumble down the slippery slope that leads to Putin’s state-owned and government controlled propaganda network.
1970s Television: More Than Flared Jeans And Disco.
AS IS SO OFTEN the case in any discussion about who should own what in New Zealand, the historical ignorance of the younger generation stands athwart any progress towards non-neoliberal solutions. Fed horror stories about prime ministers vetting broadcast journalists’ questions and news bulletins crafted in the offices of the Tourist & Publicity Department, younger media players know nothing of the extraordinary creativity, vibrancy and independence of publicly-owned television in the late-1960s and 70s.
The latter decade, which coincided with the introduction of a second publicly-owned television channel, witnessed an extraordinary flowering of news and current affairs, documentary, drama and music programmes. For this very reason, the enemies of public ownership spare no effort in casting the 1970s as the decade that taste forgot – notable only for its flared jeans and disco. Obliterated almost completely from New Zealanders’ collective memory is the amazing collection of creative talent which was all-too-briefly assembled in the purpose-built Avalon television studios situated ten miles north of the capital. If this period is recalled at all it is only for the purposes of laughing at the posh pronunciation and absurd hairstyles of the era’s ridiculously clunky (by contemporary standards) broadcasters.
It is no accident that New Zealand’s golden era of television coincided with the changes initiated by the Norman Kirk-led Labour Government of 1972-1975. The freedom and independence that marked the broadcasting of the mid-1970s reiterated Kirk’s re-definition of New Zealand nationhood – especially his emphasis on steering a new and independent course diplomatically, economically and culturally.
The assertion of government ownership and state control, so often derided by the critics of public ownership, came not from the last democratic-socialist Labour Government, but from the Rob Muldoon-led National Government that ousted it. New Zealand the way Rob wanted it was all about hugging the fictions of the post-war era ever tighter to the ‘RSA Generation’s’ bosom. That the forces of creativity and innovation were injurious to the existing order of things was a prime-ministerial view of which public televisions’ bosses were left in not the slightest doubt. For Rob and his ‘Mob”, the proper focus of state television was the status-quo.
The Revolution That Wasn’t.
THE OVERTHROW OF MULDOONISM in 1984 brought a new status quo. To those broadcasters forced to endure the Big Chill of the late-1970s and early-1980s, the new order had a revolutionary feel – they even made a series about it. The reality, however, was that the new ‘Labour’ government’s ‘free-market’ broadcasting regime was way more insistent on ideological conformity than Muldoon’s government had ever dared to be. Richard Prebble’s Broadcasting Act of 1989 buried ‘public service broadcasting’ forever. A commercially-oriented, ratings-driven TVNZ was Rogernomics’ gift to the shattered remnants of what had once been New Zealand’s vibrant public media.
That’s why the long-awaited third television network was so warmly welcomed. TV3, by some unanticipated quirk of late-capitalist cultural logic displayed more creativity, innovation and independence than the ideologically straightjacketed TVNZ. For the past 30 years, the privately-owned TV3 network has, heroically and paradoxically, filled the vacuum created by the deliberate destruction of public service broadcasting in 1989.
Certainly, there was an attempt to re-inject public service ideals into the state broadcaster under the Clark-led Labour Government of 1999-2008. Unfortunately, the commercial ethos was so deeply entrenched in TVNZ that removing it would require, in the powerful metaphor of veteran broadcaster Ian Fraser “a neutron bomb” – i.e. something that would keep the infrastructure intact while wiping out all the people inside it. The TVNZ ‘Charter’ and its good intentions did not survive the 2008 change of government.
Enter Democracy’s Digital Gravediggers.
IN THE TEN YEARS since then both the global and the local media environment has been utterly transformed. Technological change and the radical cultural responses it has prompted have disrupted not only newspaper publishing and broadcasting, but also the democratic political system they did so much, historically, to construct. While the future of digital communication is assured, the same cannot be said for the gathering and dissemination of news. In the words of The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive:
“Journalism is different. It has been indirectly funded, through advertising, since its birth. Advertising no longer sustains it, nor will it ever again. The new advertising giants make no journalism, nor have any interest in doing so. We are facing a New Zealand in the not too distant future in which information becomes a tightly held and costly commodity (the new premium Herald is $200 a year, the NBR twice that), with access to it limited to those who have the facility to pay for it.”
Put more bluntly, the not-too-distant future will not be democratic.
That does not have to be the way things develop in New Zealand. Democracy and journalism, cultural creativity and innovation, can survive and thrive: but only if sufficient political will is summoned to the task of transitioning the newspaper and television industries out of their current configurations and into publicly managed structures dedicated to preserving the critical thinking and free speaking so essential to the practice and defence of democracy.
Freedom & Funding
OF COURSE the Duncan Greives of this world will object that taking current affairs journalism, and cultural production generally, under the wing of the state will produce exactly the same reduction in diversity that the “pompous relics” at the Commerce Commission deemed so injurious to the public good in relation to the proposed merger of NZME and Stuff. But is that really the only outcome? Is that what actually happened back in the days when television was principally funded from the public purse?
The answer is “No.” The producer-driven television of the 1970s generated programmes that were as quirky as they were challenging. Ranging from the still much-beloved Country Calendar, to the ground-breaking historical drama series, The Governor, the output of the two publicly-owned television channels was formidable. Editorial freedom, moderated by professional responsibility and a strong understanding of and connection with their viewers, empowered New Zealand’s television producers to turn out programmes of impressive quality and impact.
Broadcast live out of the Avalon studios, The Dean/Edwards Show – featuring Brian Edwards and another British import, Michael Dean – anticipated the big, live-audience shows of what came to be called “reality” television. Perhaps their most memorable programme was devoted to the power of advertising. With wicked inventiveness, the production team hired an advertising agency and the actor Ian Mune to “sell” the Cooks & Stewards Union (infamous for going on strike during the school holidays) which they did with extraordinary and highly revealing effectiveness.
All that is required to generate the most stunning television is editorial freedom and the funding necessary to make it real. It is precisely this magical combination that explains the runaway success of HBO and Netflix-commissioned shows.
Public Media, Not State Media.
THE BEST WAY to secure the full benefits of public media is to ensure that it is firmly embedded in the local community. Once again, young New Zealanders have no memory of the time when each of the four main centres boasted an extensive regional television service. Not only did these regional production centres screen their own local news and current affairs, but also produced shows for broadcast on the nationwide network. The award-winning children’s programme “Spot On”, for example, was produced in TV One’s Dunedin studios.
The social, political and cultural impact of the hundreds of staff employed by these regional production centres was considerable. A healthy dose of irreverence and anarchic joy was injected into the inward-looking provincial communities their presence so thoroughly disrupted. With the broader public acting as their patrons, they unleashed the energy of art and the power of critical thinking against conservative regional cliques grown accustomed to smothering both.
Such was the public – the social-democratic – media culture that Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and the whole neoliberal revolution swept away.
Rebuilding Trust In Public Ownership.
AH, YES, but as Kit Marlowe says in The Jew of Malta, “that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead”. For a while at least a resurrected system of public media ownership would need to be protected by some pretty sturdy walls of public accountability. The taxpayers would have to be assured that their new media system was, as Fox News boasts, “fair and balanced” and that bodies existed to make sure it was.
At both the regional and national level this could be achieved by appointing boards that were genuinely representative of the communities they served. Like the boards-of-directors of the long-gone Trustee Savings Banks, the governing bodies of these new media organisations could include nominees from the business community, the trade unions, educational institutions and communities of faith, along with representatives of management and staff. Such bodies would be there to protect not only the rights of the audience, but also the editorial freedom and independence of producers and journalists. These guardians would, themselves, be guarded by the provisions of statute law.
A Matter Of Political Will.
NONE OF THESE CHANGES will be forthcoming from the present government. Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, has already made it clear that he and his Cabinet colleagues have not the slightest intention of riding to TV3’s rescue. On the left of New Zealand electoral politics in 2019 there is neither the political will, nor any real political understanding of the vital role played by the media in both preserving and fostering a democratic culture. Like practically all politicians, Labour, Green and NZ First MPs regard the media in general, and journalists in particular, as the enemy. Though most of them had more delicacy than to say so out loud, Winston Peters’ “Good riddance!” response to TV3’s imminent demise was, almost certainly, their own.
The truly radical insight of the Kirk Government was that a genuinely independent public broadcasting system, driven by a desire to serve the public good, and insulated from the tutelage of the advertisers’ almighty dollar, would always end up serving the interests of the citizens it empowered – and hence the interests of the political party most dedicated to their welfare. Only when those same citizens grasp the urgent democratic necessity of rescuing not just TV3 but the entire New Zealand news media, will they be in a position to infuse their parliamentary representatives with the political will to make it happen.
If you don’t like where your country is right now, you should perhaps reflect upon how vital it was for the people who brought you here to first corrupt and then break the media institutions whose democratic duty it was to warn New Zealanders about where they were being taken – and why.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 October 2019.