We appear to be the only country in the developed world without a public service television channel. By this I mean a channel that is state funded, commercial-free and programmed with the interests of the audience in mind, rather than a commercial imperative. Now the TVNZ charter is to go, and this will no doubt be the trigger for public outrage and dire warnings. However, before we all start weeping, wailing and gnashing our teeth, we need to look at what we’ve lost. The Charter was always a paper tiger, so watered down from its original intention of ensuring public service broadcasting, so limp and cautious and ineffectual, that it held the state broadcaster to – well, almost nothing but good intentions. It came with a very large annual chunk of money for ‘public service broadcasting’, which was accounted for only in retrospect. That money was spent on a number of projects, some of them very worthwhile. But it was also spent on programmes that had previously been funded from commercial revenue; it was spent on buying overseas programmes; it was spent on Dancing with the Stars. The result of the charter disappearing will be that TVNZ no longer has to pretend it is a public service broadcaster, that it no longer has to pay lip service to the needs of the wider public, that it can concentrate on returning a profit to its major shareholder, the Government. I suspect we’ll find that we’ve lost almost nothing but the excuses.
A sigh of relief is probably wafting round the TVNZ boardroom. That relief is justified. The mixed model has always been an impossible challenge for any broadcaster. You can’t demand true public service broadcasting and also expect a channel to return a healthy profit. You can’t screen minority programmes at peak viewing and expect to get an audience – and commercial broadcasting is all about delivering audiences to advertisers. So TVNZ compromised by screening its minority programming at times when it’s hard to give advertising away – when midnight was looming, during daytime sessions, and especially on Sunday morning, when the channel is advertising-free. Many of those programmes were never paid for with Charter money in any case. NZ on Air funds most of the minority programming on television – and we’re not talking about Basket Weaving for Vegans here, we’re talking about series with substantial audiences like Asia Down Under, Tagata Pasifika and all NZ children’s programmes. To many of these programmes, the broadcaster contributes not one red cent. So it always made sense to have NZ on Air monitor the Charter money, to make sure it went where the Government intended it to go, as it does with Radio New Zealand. The argument fell on deaf ears and the result was inevitable. Without an independent monitor, the decision making could be interpreted as cavalier, and eventually the direct funding was removed.
But TVNZ was still left with a Charter, albeit a wishy-washy one, and the Charter imposed upon it the obligation to cater for all New Zealanders, to provide programming across the spectrum. That obligation has now gone. The only true public service broadcasting we have left in this country is provided by Radio New Zealand. TVNZ can claim that TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 (funded by the Government until 2011) are commercial free, but commercial breaks have just been replaced by ‘promo breaks’ advertising other programmes. An ad is an ad, whether it’s paid for or not. The paradigm has already been established for commercials to slip in almost unnoticed when the funding dries up. I would argue that the Maori Television Service provides the closest thing to public service television that we have in New Zealand. The programming is paid for largely with government funding, but the amount of material the network is managing to produce for that money is truly impressive. So is the quality of that material, and the entertainment value it provides. Maybe an enlightened broadcasting minister could hand a shiny new channel, a revised and strengthened Charter and its accompanying funding to MTS and see if it could serve the rest of New Zealander as effectively as it’s serving Maori. The result would be refreshing and entertaining at the very least. In the meantime, we will remain the only developed country without a public service television channel. That could be regarded as something of a disgrace