WHY CAN’T WILLIE JACKSON make a case for the merger of Radio NZ and TVNZ?
Last Sunday, on the Q+A current affairs show, he told his host, Jack Tame, that he wanted an “entity” to match Britain’s BBC and Australia’s ABC. Great! Were New Zealanders to be treated to a new public broadcaster modelled on the BBC and the ABC, the country would forever be in the Minister of Broadcasting’s debt.
Unfortunately, Jackson was just blowing smoke. The entity he is in the process of creating will not be the least bit like the BBC or ABC. So unlike them will it be, in fact, that it is actually safer for the Minister to give New Zealanders as few details as possible. Hence his unwillingness to make the case.
So, what will this “entity”: this Frankenstein broadcaster, cobbled together from the dead bodies of New Zealanders’ existing public radio and television networks; actually be like?
Perhaps the easiest way to describe what Jackson’s new public broadcaster will be like, is to set out clearly what it will not be like.
It will not be fair. It will not be balanced. It will not perceive itself as a platform upon which all New Zealanders, espousing all manner of ideas and opinions, will be made to feel welcome. That sort of public broadcaster – of which the BBC is undoubtedly the exemplar – strives to present itself as a mirror: an institution in whose productions the nation expects to see itself reflected – warts and all – and is not disappointed.
But surely, that must be what Jackson and his colleagues have in mind? One would hope so. But if that was indeed the sort of public broadcaster Labour is planning, then, just like the BBC and the ABC, it would be steadfastly non-commercial. More bluntly, it wouldn’t be supported in any way, shape, or form – by advertising.
From the very beginning, however, Labour’s made it plain that the merged entity will rely for a goodly chunk of its income on the sale of advertising. That decision, alone, shows that, regardless of the Minister’s protestations, the entity he has planned will be nothing like the BBC or the ABC – which rely upon a broadcasting licence fee, and direct state funding, respectively. Insert advertisers into the broadcasting equation, and pretty soon all your left with is a schedule dedicated to attracting the highest number of eyeballs, by catering to the lowest common cultural denominators.
That is why Radio NZ is the only real public broadcaster left in New Zealand. Its National and Concert Programmes are rigorously non-commercial – a status they enjoy by virtue of the fact that the entire network is funded by the taxpayer. It is this complete independence from advertisers and sponsors that makes Radio NZ’s diverse selection of programmes, catering to all manner of tastes, possible.
Television NZ, by way of contrast, is utterly dependent on the advertisers’ dollars. It’s programming is dictated by the ratings. If not enough people are watching, then advertisers demand a discount, and the network’s revenues fall. If more viewers are keen to watch FBoy Island than an historical drama, then it’s the reality TV show that gets the prime-time slot. Which is why there are so few historical dramas, and so many reality TV shows, on prime-time NZ television.
Forty years ago, New Zealand’s public television networks, heavily subsidised by a broadcasting licence-fee, and with the amount of advertising strictly regulated, was as dedicated to producing the broadest possible range of high-quality programmes as public radio still is today. The full commercialisation of TVNZ – yet another gift of the Rogernomics era – would undoubtedly have been Radio NZ’s fate had it not been for its huge, highly-educated, and politically-engaged audience’s ability to keep it out of the private sector’s withering grip.
Which brings us back to the original question: Why can’t Willie Jackson defend the merger of RNZ and TVNZ? The answer is brutally simple: Radio NZ currently broadcasts to the wrong demographic. It’s listeners are too old, too white, too well-educated, and insufficiently “woke” to be herded in the direction Labour favours.
That is why Willie Jackson is so determined to merge Radio NZ with TVNZ. He needs a new net with which to go fishing for a new audience.
He neither needs, nor wants, RNZ’s existing listeners.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 December 2022.