It appeared to be an inspired plan, to get our state broadcaster to run the two commercial-free channels TVNZ6 and TVNZ7. TVNZ had the infrastructure, the studios, the staff and the know-how. It also had millions of dollars, kindly donated by the Government, to run the channels. It was in fact an invitation for TVNZ to shoot itself in the foot. Our state broadcaster operates with one hand tied behind its back at the best of times. The mixed model that requires it to be mindful of public broadcasting requirements and programming and at the same time be commercially successful and return a healthy profit to the government, is as daft as claiming someone’s a little bit pregnant. You can be a successful public broadcaster; you can be a successful commercial broadcaster. You can’t do both successfully because their aims and objectives are antipathetic.
Every viewer who switches to TVNZ7 is a viewer who isn’t watching TVOne or TV2. Why on earth would TVNZ encourage people to switch to it? That would be commercially irresponsible. It’s also a dilemma the network faces every time it puts a public service programme to air, which is why most of them are broadcast in the dead of night or on Sunday mornings. The programmes that make up good public service broadcasting are in the main programmes that networks believe would spell death to the ratings. I applaud the principle behind Clare Curran’s private member’s bill, intended to save TVNZ7 and force TVNZ to pay for it. But it’s never going to succeed as a public service channel until the divorce is at least decree nisi. Yes, TVNZ could pay to run the channel, but that funding should not be direct; direct funding means control.
The money should be ring-fenced from the annual dividend paid to the government – and that funding should not be direct either. It should be channelled through NZ on Air as is Radio New Zealand’s funding. Arms length is the only safe place for a government when it comes to broadcasting. The temptation for politicians and ministries to m￼eddle, and the temptation for their opponents to claim political interference is too great. That’s why the NZ on Air model works so well – it distances funding and monitoring from government. (I’m a former Deputy Chair of the Board of NZ on Air, so I’m allowed to be biased!) The channel itself should be a totally separate entity, run by a separate organisation. Whether that’s a trust, a government entity or a company is a detail that can be worked out later. What is important now is to remove the channel from the control of TVNZ altogether – mere editorial independence isn’t enough.
The separate entity could still use TVNZ studios and staff and equipment if need be. It would hire them, just as private companies do. It would, and should, expect mates’ rates, but it shouldn’t expect to use the facilities for nothing, although perhaps the cost could be absorbed and become a paper addition to TVNZ’s annual dividend. Our new public service channel could then promote itself and its programming, it could advertise, it could make sure it was prominent in newspaper and magazine listings. In other words, it could become visible to a huge audience that is largely unaware that it exists, or what programmes it broadcasts and when they are available. TVNZ7 deserves to exist in some form. For goodness sake, do we want to rejoin Mexico as the only country in the OECD without public service television? But it should not be TVNZ7. It should be PSTV1. That’s the only model that is fair to TVNZ, and it’s the only model that would be fair to us, the public.