TVNZ: little point in its present state; or is that the point?

What is the point of TVNZ? What distinguishes this "state broadcaster" from any other commercial operation? Very little, it would seem, and two or three recent revelations might indicate that its political masters want us - the ultimate owners - to see it in this very light. All the better for a sell-off in three or four years' time.

For starters, there was the spiking of its so-called charter guns. TVNZ's $15 million direct charter money, for making New Zealand programming, was hived off from TVNZ by Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman and delivered in the guise of the fancy-sounding Platinum Fund to NZ On Air for distribution to the various free-to-air networks - among them the part-foreign owned Prime and TV3.

The last government made this relatively easy for the minister by allowing the charter money to be channelled into either lowest-common-denominator reality TV, or programmes to be buried in the ratings graveyards of Saturday or Sunday morning.

From that sort of position, it's not much of a leap to say, well, why should TVNZ get to corner the market on taxpayer-funded dross? Perhaps the dross would be better quality if the funds earmarked for it were contestable. Yes, quite. Let's have equal opportunities dross.

And so it has come to pass. But not without a little ideological nudge from voices on the Right insisting a public service broadcaster is unnecessary in this country, and the unregulated market - even when it presides over the most cataclysmic meltdown in 80 years - is infallible. All knowing, all powerful, even of information and culture.

The sad truth, however, is the market doesn't give a fig about "culture" - unless a price can be put on it - and it will sell its information to the highest bidder, branded according to its clients' tastes, political and otherwise.

TVNZ may have ceased to behave in any real sense like a recognisable public service broadcaster some years ago, but this isn't to say there is no longer a need for the function - a function presently most approximately performed by Maori Television.

Arguably, with the fragmentation of TV audiences, and thus the splintering of advertising revenues into increasingly smaller packages, there is a greater need than ever for genuine public service TV. For in such an environment, the purely commercial channels are hardly about to sacrifice ratings-rich dumb-and-dumber stuff for the educative and the socially useful.

Last week, TVNZ's CEO Rick Ellis hit the headlines for the $110,000 bonus he earned in 2008. This took his performance-related earnings to more than $800,000 per annum. This year, he restructured the organisation and got rid of 80 staff.

It has often been said that there is an irreconcilable conflict in the twin imperatives of TVNZ - to be both a public service broadcaster and a tight, dividend-returning commercial operation. But if that's the case, it's all too apparent which model of management it follows: sack the Indians, reward the chiefs and never mind the consequences for content.

There is a convention that the government and its ministers keep their sticky fingers out of the state broadcaster's daily operations for fear of deflating that delicate souffle known as "editorial independence"; in the past, governments have bent over backwards to avoid being perceived as so doing. But such wussy niceties have been unceremoniously ditched.

First there was the Maori TV Rugby World Cup broadcasting rights farce in which Government ministers were falling all over each other in efforts to influence what, strictly speaking, were operational decisions. They couldn't have been more guilty of political interference if they tried.

Now add to this the episode in which marketing boffins at TVNZ have given Finance Minister Bill English - incidentally a shareholding minister in the company - acres of free advertising as the face of economic wisdom in a series to be broadcast on TVNZ 7, one of the company's two digital channels.

Here's Jane Clifton of the Listener (7.11.09): "Not since Sir Robert's [Muldoon] gargoyle reign over state servants have TV bosses striven to assuage a politician for no good reason."

Or Tom Frewen in the National Business Review (30.10.09): "As minister of finance, Mr English will have the final say on the future of TVNZ's two digital channels after their $79 million public funding runs out in 2011.

"A starring role in a series of worthy programmes on the economy should generate nothing but goodwill towards the broadcaster when the minister comes to make his decision."

Not even Harry Houdini could escape at least the perception of a conflict - and whose idea it was, who approached whom, is beside the point.

In the minister's own immortal words: "It's not a good look." But then not much about TVNZ is these days.

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor of the Otago Daily Times.


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