Plunket and Frewen on the future of public service television in NZ

by Jake Quinn

A number of interesting discussion threads have evolved over the last few days on the Save Radio New Zealand Facebook site (which now has 20,800 fans).  The general theme of this new debate is the future of public service television in NZ, and chiefly, what role TV1 ought to play in this future.  For the benefit of those not on Facebook, I’m going to share some of the highlights here.

All this talk has come about as a result of the Broadcasting Minister floating the possibility of setting up TVNZ 7 as a public service broadcaster, leaving TV One and the other TVNZ channels to “focus on making money”.

On the Facebook page NBR media commentator Tom Frewen said:

Forget about saving Radio New Zealand. It’s safe. Nothing will happen to it, you’ve made sure of that. Instead work on saving TV One. The minister wants to confine non-commercial television to TVNZ 6 & 7 way off in the digital fringes. TVNZ belongs to taxpayers. Their channel must be TV One. It’s like the government got Whitcoulls to run the public library. Gradually all the free books disappeared. Now Whitcoulls wants to sell the library to Borders. This must not be allowed to happen. It would be theft.

To which long time Morning Report host Sean Plunket responded:

It seems to me this is in fact where this debate should be headed. Britain, Australia and ireland (perhaps the best comparison) all have unified public broadcasting organisations. While there are various funding models the synergy of having radio and television together actually produces the sort of efficiency that some are seeking. It greatly enhances the independence of public broadcasters by giving them more clout and allows professional development of staff. The NZBC was originally split as a precursor to a sale which to a limited extent was acheived through the carve off of comercial radio. What we seem to have now is an under funded but fundamentally ethical and robust radio service which achieves public good aims..and a commercially successful but lowest common denominator tv service which makes money most of the time. The logical solution is to remerge them as was successfully achieved by the abc in the early nineties. TVNZ 6 and 7 simply don’t have the audience to provide the funding stream TV1 and TV 2 have. Many in Radio argue it will come off second best under such an arrangement…I’d suggest it couldn’t do worse funding wise than where it is at right now. But this sort of change requires serious ground work….how for example do you appoint the board of such an organisation …an electoral college perhaps. It would also fundamentally alter the role of NZ on Air, perhaps even render it irrelevant. Do you bring Maori Television into the fold or not? Whatever the answers it is this sort of wide ranging and fundamental reform of public broadcasting that is required not ad hoc tinkering and fractured stop gap fixes. Many inside and outside the broadcasting/journalism industries are supportive of such a big step. If we can rise above political partisanship and turf protecting small mindedness this country does have the ability to create a truly unique, independent and efficient public good broadcaster.

Frewen responds:

We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get our public library back. This year, two broadcasting bills go through Parliament. The RNZ bill, preserving its charter, has three more readings to go. But the TVNZ bill, repealing its charter, started its first reading this week and still has to go before a select committee, where it will be open to public submission. No need for public meetings, petitions etc, you can go straight to the top. The question is: what will replace the charter? The government has given this no thought at all. They want to sell TV1 and TV2 and put “public service” programmes on TVNZ 6 & 7 – still with commercials! — and currently reaching just over 60% of homes thanks to SKY. The public channel must be the NO 1 channel, available to everybody free-to-air. The first object of any campaign should be to kick up such a fuss that the government dare not try to put the bill through under urgency, avoiding a select committee hearing. The second should be to hijack the bill when it’s at the select committee – turning it from a bill that fully commercialises TVNZ into one that forces it to make at least one channel fully non-commercial.

Frewen then concludes, (albeit on a separate discussion thread):

That’s it. It’s our call. For the past 20 years, TVNZ has been run for the industry – the commercial broadcasting executives, the advertising agencies and the production houses. They are a powerful lobby, with vested self-interest in maintaining the status quo. It is time the politicians listened to the owners – the taxpayers. Do we want a non-commercial television channel? If “yes”, we must let them know. And it must be the No 1 channel on your remote. Never mind what’s on TV1 now. Think of TV1 as like BBC 1 or ABC – non-commercial, quality news and current affairs, documentaries, Maori television etc.