What price public TV, radio?

Last month, a significant date slipped beneath the radar. On May 18, television in New Zealand achieved the ripe old age of 50.

In that month in 1959, weekly scheduled test programmes were broadcast to introduce the country - or more specifically Auckland - to this wondrous medium.

The transmission went out for two hours on Monday nights. Following several months of apparently successful experimentation, on January 28, 1960, the government announced that it would be introducing television to the country. The anniversary did not pass by the Minister of Broadcasting, Dr Jonathan Coleman.

"There have been dramatic changes in television broadcasting over the last 50 years," he said.

"I think it would be fair to say that the average viewer in 1959 would be utterly amazed by the quantity, quality, range and accessibility of the content New Zealanders of the 21st century take for granted . . ."

He's not wrong about that, although possibly not quite in the way that he imagines. Yes, of course technology has had a profound impact on viewing possibilities, on the quality of the image, on the range of material available.

And only a curmudgeon - or someone who never watches television anyway - would deny that the medium has not, or does not from time-to-time throw up programmes of the highest calibre: each to his or her own, and without wanting to traverse the years, in recent times, two or three that spring to mind - The West Wing, The Wire, Boston Legal, Hard Talk, Coronation Street and Country Calendar.

It is, however, increasingly the case that such programmes are few and far between, interspersed with an endless diet of the tedious and the predictable.

Those who launched the medium and envisaged for it the possibilities for good entertainment, cultural enrichment, news and current affairs would quite probably be dismayed by the parade of vanities and obsessions that passes muster these days, spearheaded by that trite, cheap-to-produce and misnamed category, "Reality TV" - an all too accurate reflection of the shallow, voyeuristic, celebrity-worshipping television culture we have managed to breed.

So far from being bowled over by progress in its 50 years of existence, there are hard questions some of us would ask. They are complex and beyond the scope of this column, so perhaps I'll just muse briefly on the increasingly enfeebled concept of public service broadcasting.

Commercial broadcasting was and is a reality, a necessary one, but had better models been found for protecting the integrity of the public service model, the entire TV sector might be healthier. Easier said than done, of course, particularly once the genie was out of the bottle.

And while television production companies welcomed this Government's "Platinum Fund" move to free-up the Charter money - supposedly for quality local content programming - from TVNZ's clasp and make it contestable among all national broadcasters (thereby, theoretically, ensuring through competitive endeavour even better quality), there are those of us who will withhold our judgement while the pudding bakes.

It is not too late, however, to ring-fence the last true - and by most yardsticks, world-class - outpost of public service broadcasting in this country: Radio New Zealand.

Should we need to? Well not if a speech to radio broadcasting students at Auckland University of Technology on May 20 by Dr Coleman is anything to go by.

He spoke of the Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill which sets out the principles of operation for Radio New Zealand and updates the Radio New Zealand Charter.

"The revised charter makes a stronger statement than its predecessor about Radio New Zealand's role as a public broadcaster," Dr Coleman said.

"The Bill also removes any potential that Radio New Zealand could be required to provide a dividend. It clearly states Radio New Zealand's purpose is to serve the public interest, and that this is to be achieved through public service principles."

That seems clear enough. All the same, observers cannot have been overly reassured when eight days later, in the Government's first Budget, Radio New Zealand National and Concert FM had their funding frozen for the next four years.

Frozen funding means no pay rises, no money to meet inevitable rising costs, no money for infrastructural development and no money to meet new trends and developments in the medium. That does not augur well for such an admired and critical part of our broadcasting services.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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