Public broadcasting mystery

Heaps of speculation this week as RNZ reported on the options and recommendation of the well known but secret group, reviewing broadcasting policy, for Minister Kris Faafoi.  A decision is expected before Christmas after Cabinet consideration.

Public broadcasting, whether through state owned entities, or via NZ On Air funded programmes for privately owned operations, is a matter of real interest to all New Zealanders.

At present we do not know the names of this group, which is appalling.  I struggle to identify any other group previously engaged by the Government in this way.   If the members were paid to participate, that would be even more appalling.  So much for transparency!

If the Cabinet decides there is a range of options which should be subject to public input before a final decision is made,  the process could regain some respectability.  If however the secret report is followed by a Cabinet decision, then we are looking at a totally disgraceful process, regardless of the merits of any decision.

There are many vested interests at play.   First and most obvious is MediaWorks, which simply wants the Government (ie the taxpayers) to limit its competition by making TVNZ at least partially non commercial.   They say the competition is unfair because in the near future TVNZ won’t pay a dividend, as it invests its cash reserves into more Kiwi content.  The Government will allow this to happen, just as MediaWorks ownership of its commercial radio network, allowed it to run TV3 for years at a loss.

The playing field for commercial TV has not changed because of Government policy, which is three decades old, but the hoovering up of advertising revenue by the likes of Facebook and Google, who contribute zip to Kiwi content.

MediaWorks should be careful what is wishes for, because the logic of making TV 1 non- commercial could be an end to NZ On Air funding for other TV channels.

The other main vested interest are the academic and public broadcasting elites who want to replicate the ABC or the BBC by having a non commercial channel producing what they see as good “public broadcasting programmes”.   Some of these people hark back to what they see as a glorious era of the 1970s.

The often confuse good quality Kiwi content which the public wants with the need for a non-commercial TV channel, strangely at a time when more of us are watching video when we choose, whether through Netflix or the likes of TVNZ On Demand.

The wider public is not getting a look in at the moment.

The RNZ model is viable indefinitely as long as it continues to be funded at a reasonable level.  I believe it would lose from any forced merger with TVNZ because of massive cultural differences and the inevitable disruption, which results from any merger of well established organisations.  Maori TV is heavily subsidised and TVNZ can look after itself for a while without immediate Government action.

TV3, owned by American and Australian commercial interests, is for sale, which I expect will happen sometime in the next year.  A new Australian owner is a likely prospect, either their channels 7 or 10.  No doubt a sale would be helped by clarity as to our  Government’s overall policy, but that policy should not be driven by the needs of foreign commercial interests.

I will await the Cabinet announcement before commenting on any proposals or decisions, but given the secrecy around the process so far, am not feeling confident we are heading for a better place.

Disclosure:  I have worked for the NZBC, the ABC, the BBC and was for six years a director of TVNZ.

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