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Marc My Words: When programs in way of commercial

Marc My Words… 16 June 2006
Political comment
By Marc Alexander

It's annoying when programs get in the way of the commercial

A recent report condemned the fact there were twenty-four supervisors in a government department overseeing twenty-five people. It was considered a top priority issue by a Labour Minister. "This is unacceptable," she said. "Where the hell was the other supervisor?"

Yup that's bureaucracy for you. If all those clever political analysts who really understood what this Labour government was up to were laid end to end, he would feel a little conspicuous and silly. The administration now makes about as much sense as crop circles or the Da Vinci code.

Yet here we go again.

The government continues to filch our money to spend on things best left in the hands of private industry. Consider the decision to go digital with our free to air television services. Sounds great in theory huh?

We'll soon be able to watch Susan Wood, infomercials and Hogan's hero's reruns in a crisp, audio enhanced wide screen format. With the new technology we'll also be able to decide not only what but when to watch particular programs. We can, for example, view the Late Show early, Midday at midnight, Breakfast at lunch and Close Up from far off. The trouble is free TV won't be free anymore. Not only will we be obliged to purchase a $200 set-top box to decode the digital signal and up to $100 for a UHF aerial (or perhaps a $200 satellite dish), we'll also contribute around $25 million in taxes to help with the changeover. That doesn't even include the resources we've already had fleeced by way of our involuntary contributions to TVNZ and Maori TV (and we still don't know which family in the North Island watches it).

As a taxpayer we are bankrolling this extravagance. Is it even necessary? Shouldn't we at least be asked for our opinion about how to spend our money? Its worth remembering that TVNZ wanted to go digital six years ago and the Labour government put a kibosh on the plan. Apparently the reason then was that the massive tax spend was upwards of $217 million and it was feared that the network would be 'distracted' from its role as a public broadcaster. So, what's changed?

The answer and I'm only guessing here, is that the recent move towards greater internet speeds by unbundling Telecom has emboldened this government which now wants a few more infrastructural trophies to gloat about. Besides, it might just take our minds off the other obviously low infrastructural priorities like energy generation on which to grow our economy. Clearly this government considers it a much better spend if it upgraded the broadcasting services on which its propaganda relies.

Look, no one can reasonably argue that digital shouldn't be the future of broadcasting. There are a lot of plusses: better reception quality, more viewing options and, in the long run cheaper. It's easy to see why the free to air broadcasters want it but the real question is why the taxpayer should subsidize it. After all, nobody gave Sky financial assistance did they? Now after huge investment it's turning a profit by providing a service customers are willing to pay for. That isn't the case for public broadcasters who rely on the generosity of the government to spend our money. But I suppose that's par for the course with an administration that sees itself as flawless.

The sad thing is that Helen Clark believes in her infallibility. She thinks she knows what the country needs, what her subjects need, and especially, what her government needs - she just needs more of our money to fund it. She's encouraged to believe in her re-making of New Zealand in her own image by a caucus dominated by fawners and sycophants (Well, except those waiting for another of Phil Goff's barbeque invitations but that’s another story). I've heard that on at least one occasion our PM stunned some of her colleagues by admitting to at least one mistake: she once thought she was wrong when she wasn't.

And like listening to a Labour party announcement, most free to air programs give us an appreciation of what it's like to be in a coma with a swag of reality shows for those who don't actually like reality.

Free to air isn't free. Consider TVNZ: it's not only subsidized, but constrained by a charter dreamt up by political know-it-alls who hate popular [= profitable] culture. That’s why it cannot stand on its own financial legs. At least those of us who watch Sky freely choose to pay for what we get. And, in turn, Sky must listen to what we, the customer, wants or dies.

Can West, the only other real competitor in the broadcasting industry, will at least dip into its own shareholder funds to help defray the costs. The same cannot be said for Maori TV, Radio NZ, and TVNZ. They all rely on compulsory donations by the taxpayer who may or may not choose to watch and listen to any of them. In the end the real price will be paid by the public with more channels from which to choose their daily dose of advertising.


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