Death of public service TV

Apologies for returning to an old hobbyhorse, but now the Government and TVNZ have conspired definitively to put TVNZ 7 out to grass, and with it the last vestiges of public service television in this country.

Last week, TVNZ announced it would not retain TVNZ 7 but would instead rebrand it as "Plus One" and use it to rerun the TV One schedules an hour later. This would enable those busy people without time-shifting recording devices to watch their favourite programmes an hour later than normal.

"TV One has been selected as the time-shifted channel to maximise exposure for the great local content, news and current affairs that it features," crowed TVNZ acting chief executive Rodney Parker.

This might be worth cheering about if the viewing staples on TV One - particularly the local content, the news and the current affairs - were worth watching in the first place.

The main news hour on TV One is passable; the version that is screened at 8pm on TVNZ 7 is vastly superior: more in-depth, more analytical and more intelligent.

Local content? I suppose by that we mean MasterChef and endless other reality TV variations. Current affairs? Does Mr Parker watch his own channel? Surely he has to be joking - unless he is referring to Q+A, which is broadcast at 9am on Sunday.

Is there anyone else out there irritated at being patronised by the steady stream of PR spin that people like Mr Parker seem unabashed at foisting on us. Tell us white is black often enough and we will all adjust our mental sets?
Mr Parker is the latest messenger tasked with making the best of a bad lot. He works for a state-owned enterprise with its own board, so as management he is supposedly insulated from government. But let's not be cute. It is his political masters who need to stand up on this issue.

And, in my view, the outright abolition of any coherent platform offering public service television programming is a disgrace and an abrogation of duty on the part of the Government towards the taxpayer in whose interests the stewardship of state broadcasting has been entrusted.

Detractors of TVNZ 7 say it is of strictly minority interest. There is significant debate over the viewing figures for the channel, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest they are considerably higher than those mischievously put about by the former minister of broadcasting and parroted by unsympathetic media.

For those who are unfamiliar with the channel - that there are so many is unsurprising given that it has remained steadfastly unpromoted by TVNZ - it broadcasts a range of documentaries and local programmes on sciences, the arts, books and so on. It has regularly screened locally made content such as Media 7, The Court Report and Back Benches, which treat with some seriousness the issues of the day.

It is not perfect, nor is it anyone's idea of a rounded viewing experience. Rather, it does offer respite from the "fast-food" viewing pap offered by other channels. But, to return to the nub of the issue: the demise of public service television.

Why should we care? Not just because every decent, developed democracy has it - although it might be thought prudent to consider this fact and investigate why. Rather, because public service television is a guarantor of the flow of information free from commercial imperatives.

That is to say the profit motive and privileged interests play no part in whether certain programmes are made and screened.

A purely commercial television market is a kind of broadcasting totalitarianism, the socio-cultural equivalent of a beloved neoliberal mantra: the market is all powerful, all knowing and always right. The tendency is resolutely towards the masses because, in the view of the advertisers, that is what the market is. Anything even slightly off-centre is either elitist or of minority interest.

Money becomes the great despot. It brooks no interference, no reasoning. It's all take and no give.

There is little room for the alternative view, the challenge to the status quo - on the strength of which most good societies depend and evolve.

All of which proves there is nothing new under the sun. The Roman satirist Juvenal, bemoaning the calculated undermining of civic virtue by the republic's political leaders, wrote circa AD100, of the coruscating effects of "panem et circenses": the frivolity, the diversion, the distraction of the people from all that is of lasting public value through the dissemination of bread and circuses.

Is that where we are headed in this country?

Simon Cunliffe is a Wellington writer. He has appeared as a commentator, unpaid, on TVNZ 7's Media 7 programme on two occasions.


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