Comment

Get back to basics on public service broadcasting

No amount of valiant optimism and structural tinkering will solve the woes of public broadcasting. It all comes down to funding, says Peter Dunne.

Ever since the Forbes-Coates Coalition heavy-handedly jammed Colin Scrimgeour’s Sunday evening broadcast on Auckland’s 1ZB the week before the 1935 election, governments have always had an awkward relationship with broadcasting.

On the one hand, because of what happened in 1935, they have been wary of too much overt intervention in programme content, but, on the other, they have been anxious about the impact unconstrained radio (and later television) could have on public opinion. At the same time, they have been constantly getting to grips with ever changing technological and commercial realities within the broadcasting sector.

The first Labour Government’s response was clear and typical of the time – a new state agency, the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, was established. It brought together the then commercial and non-commercial network under one publicly owned umbrella.

The broadcast mix was good and wholesome – focusing on light entertainment, safe, solid local interest documentaries and sport, with a national news service built largely around government and other official media releases. When television came along in the early 1960s, it was fitted into this basic structure. In 1962 the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was established to put broadcasting at arm’s length from the government.

By the early 1970s, however, its inadequacies were becoming obvious.

Questions were constantly being raised about how representative NZBC programming was, news and current affairs, in particular.  This was happening at a time when more diverse opinions and cultural identities were starting to be heard in the general community.

The 1966 Compass affair (when a current affairs television programme on whether the advent of decimal currency would lead to higher prices was abruptly cancelled in dubious circumstances) had raised questions that never quite went away about the independence of news and current affairs services under the then National Government. That year the NZBC’s commercial radio monopoly was challenged too when the pirate radio ship Tiri sailed out into the Hauraki Gulf, and Radio Hauraki was born – arguably the country’s first youth radio station.

One hope at the time, still substantially unfulfilled, was that these changes would lead to the development of a modern public service broadcasting structure, distinctively our own, but somewhat akin to the BBC model.

But big commercial questions were also looming – the introduction of colour television and a possible second television channel. Colour television came first in 1973, spurred principally by the Christchurch Commonwealth Games due to be held in early 1974, and the prospect of significant international viewing audiences.

Technological change was beginning to outpace the bureaucratic structure under which broadcasting services operated, which led then Broadcasting Minister Roger Douglas to devise the structure of the state broadcasting system as it essentially stands today. In 1975, he abolished the NZBC and replaced it with three separate structures – Television One, the new Television Two, and Radio New Zealand comprising National Radio, Concert, International and the commercial network. Funding continued to be based on a public licence fee, supplemented by the commercial earnings of the individual entities.

As media platforms started to become more diverse in the later 1980s and early 1990s, the simmering tension between the state’s commercial and non-commercial roles grew, as did the costs of maintaining the service.

The National Government’s response was to sell all the commercial radio stations in 1996, and to remodel Radio New Zealand as a Crown Entity. Television New Zealand (by now responsible for both Television One and Television Two) carried on. By 2000, the public broadcasting fee had been abolished and separate Charters for Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand which would emphasise their responsibilities and statutory independence were being developed.

One hope at the time, still substantially unfulfilled, was that these changes would lead to the development of a modern public service broadcasting structure, distinctively our own, but somewhat akin to the BBC model.

However, chronic under-funding of Radio New Zealand, and occasional questions about whether it was still needed at all, inhibited the achievement of this ideal, while Television New Zealand, faced with enormous competition, really became just another commercial television operator, the best efforts of independent public funding bodies New Zealand On Air and Te Mangai Paho notwithstanding.

Today, therefore, while we have pretty much independent state-owned radio and television services, they do not really fit the model of public service broadcasters because they have not been enabled to. Rather, they are struggling to compete in ever diverse and changing markets and delivery platforms, where the dominant feature is no longer the “box in the corner” as it has been for so many generations.  

Against this backdrop, Minister Kris Faafoi’s plans to bring Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand back into the same stable – dismantling one more of Roger Douglas’ legacies in the process – smacks of valiant optimism.

Structural change that does not get to the heart of what ails public broadcasting at present will be no change at all. 

To take a current example, the controversy over the fate of Radio New Zealand Concert demonstrates the scale of the problem. For Radio New Zealand, the conundrum is a simple one in its mind – it wants to expand youth broadcasting services to a segment which it rightly believes it is currently failing to serve, but has concluded the only way it can do that is to shift the existing Concert network off its FM platform and on to AM, to free up the space required for its new plans.

This issue, and the ensuing controversy it has unleashed, would have emerged regardless of whatever overarching governance structure was in place, because the underlying issue is fundamentally one of resourcing. Rejigging the structure will not of itself change that.

... the Government should move to sell Television Two as soon as possible, because it is unashamedly commercial in its outlook, and use the proceeds, at least in the short term, to refashion Television One as a genuine, quality public service broadcaster.

Instead, the Government needs to get back to basics. There are aspects of the wider broadcasting environment, here and abroad, that a state-owned broadcasting system cannot ever hope to compete with, nor should it try to.

That means that, in this increasingly diverse environment, the focus has to be on the development of quality public service broadcasting across a range of genres and demographics.  And that comes back to funding.

That is why the Government should move to sell Television Two as soon as possible, because it is unashamedly commercial in its outlook, and use the proceeds, at least in the short term, to refashion Television One as a genuine, quality public service broadcaster.

At the same time, a long-term, stable financing plan needs to be developed for Radio New Zealand to provide it with the capital base it needs to do the job expected of it without obliging it to continually have to rob Peter to pay Paul, or, as it clumsily tried to do in this instance, propose gutting Radio New Zealand Concert to boost youth radio programming. The Prime Minister has correctly observed that both have their place, and it is not a case of “either/or”.

The finding of additional space on the FM band to enable Radio New Zealand Concert to remain, is but a short-term victory. While it will be widely and properly welcomed it still leaves the wider questions above. But it does give Faafoi a fresh opportunity to address them.

Time will tell whether he is willing to do so, or whether the legacy allure of grand restructuring dreams that few seem confident are necessary will be too strong to resist. 

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