Lee urges broadcaster transparency

Last month New Zealand on Air announced $31 million of funding for broadcasters and content producers, but National MP Melissa Lee says there is not enough scrutiny over how that money is spent, Thomas Coughlan reports.

National MP Melissa Lee was one of the lucky two MPs to have their member’s bill drawn from the ballot last Thursday.

Her bill seeks to amend the Broadcasting Act to require more public reporting of the ratings of programmes funded by New Zealand on Air (NZOA) or Te Māngai Pāho, the Māori funding agency.

Recent NZOA decisions to fund programmes that went on to rate poorly have attracted controversy.

The Spinoff TV received $700,000 from the fund, and launched with 71,000 viewers in the target 25-54 age group before those numbers plummeted and it was shifted to the 10.45pm Friday graveyard slot on Three. Last week, at the mid point of its 16-episode run, it reached just 2900 in the target demographic and a record low 12,400 for all people aged 5+, one-ninth of what it started with. 

Currently, programmes are reviewed, but other than a list of top 10 rating shows, the information is not shared with the public.

Lee said this meant there was no clear guidance for future funding decisions.

Lee’s bill would require NZOA and Te Māngai Pāho to publish quarterly reports of ratings, including online viewership.

Possible support

Lee spoke to Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran about the bill after it was drawn on Thursday.

The Labour Party doesn’t currently have a position on Lee's proposals, but Curran said she would look at the bill before deciding her response to it. Later, she told Newsroom she had seen the bill and would only comment further when it came up for debate.

It puts the minister in a difficult position. Curran’s second portfolio is Minister of Open Government – making her the Government’s official spokesperson of transparency.

NZOA currently collects viewership data, but it is not published.

A spokesperson for NZOA said it conducted a performance review of all funded content a minimum of six months after it has aired, this includes looking at the ratings and its performance online.

The review of a programme’s online performance takes into account the number of times it is streamed and the average length of time the viewer spends watching the programme.

But these performance reviews are only given to the NZOA board and are not publicly available. The minister also receives reports on the performance of funded television.

Missing the point

Victoria University lecturer and public broadcasting campaigner Peter Thompson told Newsroom that Lee's bill missed the point of the public funding agencies.

“What it seems to me to do is place in the foreground ratings as the primary criterion of whether or not public value is being created,” Thompson said.

“You are exposing those funding bodies to precisely the commercial pressures that they are intended to avoid,” he said.

Publishing quarterly ratings could discourage the funding agencies from funding risky and creative content.

Thompson said if viewership figures were to be published, they should be published alongside other measures of accountability, including the audience reach and the diversity of content and audience.

This would ensure that the agencies were funding content for communities unlikely be served by purely commercial content creation.

Lee agreed that ratings were not the only consideration for broadcast funding, saying other factors such as whether the programme was “good for the soul” were also relevant.

But Thompson said the text of the bill makes clear its intentions.

The clause, “safeguarding public funds for appropriate content that New Zealanders care about,” could mean programmes that do not have mainstream appeal get the chop, he said.

“Using ratings as the primary gauge of public value would pervert the whole point of having public content funding agencies because it would expose them to precisely the commercial performance criteria they were set up to avoid.”

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