Friday, 6 March 2009

TVNZ to be bled white

National is sucking the life-blood out of public broadcasting.

THERE can be little doubt, now, that the National-led government intends to bleed Television New Zealand white. By refusing to relieve the Crown-Owned Company of its obligation to hand over 70 percent of its profits to the Consolidated Fund, the Broadcasting Minister, Jonathan Coleman, is, in effect, condemning scores of TVNZ’s employees to the ranks of the unemployed. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he is making it even more difficult (some would say next-to-impossible) for the network to produce the sort of public service broadcasting viewers in other countries take for granted.

Coleman’s justification for refusing to suspend TVNZ’s dividend payments to the State: that it would set a dangerous precedent, and encourage other businesses to come running to the Government in search of similar assistance; is entirely specious.

For a start, TVNZ is no longer a State Owned Enterprise, which means that it is no longer legally obliged to be run as if it were a private sector business. The last Labour Government quite deliberately ditched the network’s SOE status and reconstituted it as a Crown Owned Company, so that the requirement to subordinate everything to the profit motive would no longer prevent it from fulfilling its proper, public service, obligations under the TVNZ Charter.

TVNZ’s legal status has not changed simply because there has been an election, nor have its legal obligations under the Charter. So, there is simply no way that Coleman can argue that he would be establishing some sort of dangerous commercial precedent by allowing TVNZ to use the tens of millions of dollars earmarked for the dividend to offset the dramatic fall in its advertising revenue. All he would really be doing by granting this relief is his job as Minister of Broadcasting: upholding TVNZ’s status as a chartered public broadcaster.

Of course, had Labour done what it should have done, when it should have done it, TVNZ would be far better protected from the depredations of a political party whose primary loyalty has always been to the private sector – in this case to the Sky Television network.

When Labour came to office in 1999 one of its first priorities should have been to reduce dramatically TVNZ’s financial dependence on advertising revenue. A commitment to waive the dividend, and to fund even a third of the network’s running costs out of general taxation, would have struck a deadly blow to the commercial culture which had been slowly corrupting TVNZ ever since the publicly-owned corporation became an SOE back in 1989. In particular, it would have permitted the restoration of a properly directed and adequately resourced news and current affairs division of the network. Not only would this have improved the overall coverage of political, economic and social affairs on the state broadcaster, but it would also have established bench-marks for journalistic quality across the entire news media. Instead of leading the charge in dumbing us all down, TVNZ could have made sure the rest of the media joined it in smartening us up.

Tragically, Labour never understood the key role a well-funded and independent public broadcasting service plays in the life of a fully-functioning democracy. On the contrary, when it came to broadcasting, the Finance Minister Michael Cullen allowed himself to be (mis)guided by Treasury. Not only was the normal (by OECD standards) level of subsidisation ruled out completely, but the network was also denied the right to plough its profits back into making non-commercial programmes. Like Coleman, Cullen was adamant that TVNZ must continue to pay a dividend to the State.

This refusal to properly fund TVNZ meant that the culture of commercialism, and the right-wing ideology which underpinned it, became ever more deeply entrenched in the public broadcaster. Marian Hobbs and Steve Maharey might waffle-on about public service broadcasting values, and devise a fine charter for it to live by, but so long as TVNZ remained dependent on the private sector for 90 percent of its revenue, so long would its worship of Mammon continue to deepen and grow.

And that’s how it is now.

A TVNZ management genuinely committed to public broadcasting would have tendered their resignations rather than allow Coleman to force a decimation of the network’s workforce. But that’s not the way TVNZ’s bosses think. In their minds they are businessmen – pure and simple. If the shareholders want a dividend then a dividend they shall get, and if that means firing 50-100 staff, then that’s what they’ll do. If it means slashing back on news and current affairs, drama and documentary production – then they will slash away. If it means turning out programmes that are all dumbed-down pieces of trash, pitched at the level of the lowest common denominator, then get ready for endless variations on "Dancing with the Stars".

Neo-liberalism cannot thrive in a cultural environment which honours intelligence and rewards critical thinking. Social Democracy, on the other hand, can only develop where those qualities are prized and nurtured. Norman Kirk understood that, and acted accordingly. Helen Clark didn’t, and we are all paying the price.

TVNZ has become the cultural equivalent of China’s coal-fired factories, pumping out tonne-upon-tonne of climate-changing ideological gas, polluting New Zealand’s political environment to the point where the maladapted Left is slowly, but unmistakably, being suffocated to death.


Anonymous said...

I guess what we're seeing is the difference in ideology. We're seeing the same with ACC this week i.e. it just doest register with the Right that public services should be run for people, rather than profit.

When public services, like ACC and public broadcasting, get run for profit its ultimately everyone else who suffers. Look at the state owned power companies, run for profit and we pay through the ass for power.

There are certain public services that simply shouldn't be subject to business/profit models.

XChequer said...

I agree with the fact that we need public access to TV and the right mechanism through which to achieve this is through a level of State intervention.

I still think however that there is a way of combining the two.

"A TVNZ management genuinely committed to public broadcasting would have tendered their resignations rather than allow Coleman to force a decimation of the network’s workforce. But that’s not the way TVNZ’s bosses think. In their minds they are businessmen – pure and simple."

Absolutely right, Chris, they should have tendered their resignation because they would be running the NZ- version of PBS in America, which by in large, is mostly laughed at. It is a service for niche market in an economy so large that a niche market over there generates revenue equal to the GDP of New Zealand.

Conversely, if they are businessmen, they belong at TV3/Mediaworks - a pure private enterprise.

However one would be naieve to think that, given economies of scale, that we could afford to have a PBS. How would we fund it? Jeez to hear anyone at the mo, me can't afford much at all given the parlous state of our national finances. To go the other way (fully private) would mean that we would lose our Kiwi identity among a flood of "Project Runways" and other vacuous nonsense.

I think you hit the nail on the head Chris when refering to "the businessmen". We need the operators of the state broadcaster to realise their unique position, that because of economies of scale, we sometimes can't compete with the big, flashy network on the other channel.

I essence, I think that the model as it stands, is a good one.

We just need the government to re-invest their dividend back into the industry right now and not grab it to fund the current gaping yaw in the ACC earners account.

Anonymous said...

HI Chris, my first visit. Good analysis thank, I'm going to link to it from my own much shorter and blunter post earlier today.

Rodders said...

There is a discussion of the future of Public service TV under National on mediawatch at

Ayrdale said...

A TVNZ worthy of public support would have earned that support by broadcasting quality material.
TVNZ has become a bore, showing mindless pap.