Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Not A Priority

Prime communicator of the modern age: The coming of television raised two critical questions: "Who owns the airwaves, and who (if anyone) should regulate what they carry to the citizen?"

"No one comes and talks to me in my electorate office about broadcasting regulations. It’s not a priority for the public."

Well, no, probably not. And our new Broadcasting Minister, Dr Jonathan Coleman, is undoubtedly correct when he says the only people getting exercised about the issue are "people in the industry and politicians". But even on Auckland’s intellectually arid North Shore, I’d be surprised to learn that every single one of Dr Coleman’s Northcote constituents is relaxed and happy about the current state of New Zealand television.

Democratic to a fault, free-to-air television has successfully adapted to a broadcasting environment in which every viewer has the right to vote with their remote. Over-riding every other consideration for our television schedulers, therefore, is the need to keep the viewers’ fingers off the channel-changer, and their eyeballs firmly fixed on the advertisements that pay the network’s bills. Anything which challenges, offends, or even contributes to a vague feeling of discomfort and/or unease in the collective mind of the viewing audience must be ruthlessly expunged from the schedule.

Now, it’s important to understand that, when 90-100 percent of your revenue is derived from advertising, catering to the lowest common denominator in this way isn’t a reflection of the programme scheduler’s incompetence – it’s an absolute economic necessity. Reality TV shows about fat people competing to lose the most weight, or wannabe super-models trying to be the bitchiest bimbo on the set, may not compare aesthetically with BBC adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels, but they keep people watching – and that’s all that matters.

One wonders, however, whether the ratings for reality TV would be so high if Sky Television wasn’t there to cater for those who fail to find anything remotely entertaining in "Survivor- Gabon" or "The Biggest Loser". If the more culturally sophisticated elements of the population were suddenly prevented from paying $100 per month to watch UKTV, the History Channel, National Geographic, and the Arts Channel – along with Sky movies and the global news networks, and were instead restricted to watching only free-to-air television, I’m pretty sure Dr Coleman would find his electorate office besieged by people wanting to talk about broadcasting regulations.

And herein lies the injustice of New Zealand’s current broadcasting regime. If you are well-educated and wealthy, and can afford the subscription, Sky Television offers you a generous choice of interesting, high-quality programmes. But if your household is unable to afford anything more than Sky movies and sport, or is entirely restricted to free-to-air TV, your chances of consuming anything more than the televisual equivalent of junk-food are not very high.

It was to bring some measure of cultural equity back to broadcasting that the last Labour Government introduced the TVNZ Charter. On the publicly-owned network, at least, New Zealanders were to be provided with a high-quality, intellectually challenging, culturally diverse, and – above all else – uniquely New Zealand programme schedule. Work was also started on developing a regulatory framework capable of delivering Charter-based programming in the brave new world of digital transmission.

What doomed the Charter from its very inception was the Labour Government’s point-blank refusal to provide TVNZ with the funding necessary to make a Charter-based schedule even remotely financially viable. To give all New Zealanders the same viewing opportunities as Sky subscribers – but with a distinctive Kiwi flavour – the state would need to spend approximately $300 million (funded by a broadcasting licence-fee).

Rightly believing that the Charter was nothing more than a confused collection of bureaucratic good intentions, and equally unwilling to spend the money to make it work, the National Party promised to ditch the Charter and halt Labour’s Sky-threatening regulatory review. TVNZ would revert to being an honest commercial broadcaster.

So, those who are unable to afford a Sky subscription will continue, like the Roman masses, to be distracted by the bread and circuses of lowest common denominator television, while the cultured classes will go on enjoying UKTV and the Rialto Channel. Nowhere in this mix, however, will anyone find the local cultural production, or the critical and democratically indispensable news and current affairs programmes of a truly independent public broadcaster.

New Zealand will be poorer for this lack, but Dr Coleman’s constituents are unlikely to complain. Which network’s going to risk its ratings by informing its viewers that, this time, they’re the biggest losers?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 20 February 2009.

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Rodders said...
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