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NZ Broadcasting School - Hon. Marian Hobbs Speech

Hon. Marian Hobbs
28 July 2000 Speech Notes

Embargoed until: 0900 Friday July 28.
Opening address NZ Broadcasting School Conference, Sky City Conference Centre, Auckland.


At the beginning of this year, the Government embarked on an extensive programme of work on broadcasting policy. This included some specific broadcasting issues that the Government wished to look at, for example -possible funding regimes and content specific quota requirements. But it was important to consider this work in the wider context of the process of change that is underway in the convergent industries of telecommunications, media, other distribution systems (cable/wireless etc) and, of course, the Internet itself.

In all this work we want a rigorous, well-planned and substantial analysis of the issues for broadcasting. That is what we are doing. After nine years of the deregulated, "hands-off" approach of National it was time to take stock.

And yes it is taking time. And no, Jane, I have not been captured by officials. If anyone has been doing the capturing it's been me. We had to get a group of people to focus on the lost art of broadcasting policy development. When I became Minister I had .8 of a person to deal with what I would term,"content issues" in public broadcasting – monitoring New Zealand on Air. That's now grown by two people and Cabinet established the Officials’ Committee on Broadcasting Issues, which initially focussed on the two high level papers which we are discussing today.

Let's not forget the issues that confronted this Government before we could even get down to reviewing what we should expect or want from our public broadcasters -- the pressure for a quick decision on TVNZ's digital plans; then the matter of John Hawkesby; and rebuilding the board of TVNZ.

To resolve such issues involves proper processes which take time. I am not interested in producing "instant" decisions to satisfy media. TVNZ already has a new chair and new directors. More can be expected over the next few weeks. Other broadcasting boards are or will be experiencing change in the coming months.

Let me reiterate what we think the problem is in New Zealand broadcasting, and then outline how we are going about trying to solve it.

The problem is one of under-performance – not so much by individual broadcasters, but by the New Zealand model of broadcasting as a whole. We do not believe that the true reality and diversity of New Zealand life are well enough represented in New Zealand broadcasting. We think that the contribution broadcasting can make to democratic participation and public debate is under-developed. We recognise, as do many of you, that the quantity and depth of achievement in local content are not what they ought to be, particularly in such key genres as drama, documentary and children’s programmes. Like some of you, we would like to see and hear a greater variety of content of all kinds, including international content.

To guide us as we attempt to address this situation, the Cabinet approved five broad objectives. I trust that by now, you will have seen these - (they have been posted on my website). These objectives will guide the development of the broadcasting policies:

 Ensuring all New Zealanders have reasonable and regular access to broadcasting representing the uniqueness and diversity of New Zealand life; recognising that the histories and stories of whanau, hapu and iwi are integral to any description of that life;
 Meeting the information and entertainment needs of as many interests as reasonably possible, including those that cannot be met by commercial broadcasting;
 Contributing to public awareness of and participation in the political and social debates of the day;
 Providing for minority interests and increased choice; and
 Encouraging innovation and creativity in broadcasting while aiming to continually increase audience satisfaction with the quality of the content.

The Cabinet also noted that when implementing these policy objectives and delivery mechanisms, the government will ensure that appropriate account is taken of its significant investment in public broadcasting.

It is easy enough to dismiss such broad objectives by noting that they are high level, or by invoking such cliches as “motherhood and apple pie”. And no doubt the same comments will be applied to TVNZ's Charter when it is finalised. But these documents, these objectives are “high level”, as are, for example, the statutory functions of NZ On Air, the New Zealand Film Commission or Creative New Zealand – or the kinds of declarations that are in Statements of Intent. Such verbal formulas do not in themselves set out a course of action. They serve instead as touchstones in the development of specific policies.

A statutory agency will refer to its statutory "functions" to ensure that it is remaining true to its purpose when it is working out its policies and strategies– that the particular things it chooses to do will contribute to the greater goals for which it was established. What Government has now done is to adopt a set of objectives to guide, in a similar way, the full range of policies it is pursuing to achieve improvements in broadcast content. It is, I believe, a significant step for Government to take.

Allow me briefly to say something about why we have chosen these five objectives.

First, by ensuring all New Zealanders have reasonable and regular access to broadcasting, we believe that broadcast media can and should be able to represent to New Zealanders the actual scope and variety of the country in which they live. While there are honourable exceptions, the view that we are offered of our own country through television and radio is a partial and superficial one.

In addition, we wish to realise the potential of broadcasting to give people the information they need to take part in the social and political debates of the day – and to give this information comprehensively and impartially. In order to have the opportunity to participate in our society as active citizens – rather than be treated simply as passive consumers – we all of us need broadcast media that can probe to the root of our problems, test conventional wisdom, and hold politicians like me to account.

On 'Backchat' the other week Bill Ralston attacked me for not fronting to talk about broadcasting. He referred to "protracted" negotiations to get me on, which is certainly not the way my office saw it. The fact is they knew I was unavailable the day they recorded because I was committed to shifting house. And I don't need to tell you what that entails when lawyers, banks, vendors, purchasers, settlement times all converge and then spread across the day.

Having got that off my chest let me let me get back to the potential of public broadcasting. It can fulfil this not only by engaging individual viewers or listeners, but by enhancing the quality of discourse in society as a whole, as ideas and opinions are spread and discussed in families, at work or on the floor of the House of Representatives.

We would also like to see a broadcasting system that addresses the concerns and interests of minorities, whether they be large communities in the population or a more scattered group pursuing a particular cultural interest. We expect that well developed broadcasting services will cater both to the interests of the mass audience, and to those of the minorities that make up that audience. We see minorities as being served not only by programmes that cater to their interests, but also by bringing those interests to the attention of the larger audience. We recognise that the role of Government includes providing for a range of choice beyond what strictly commercial considerations will produce.

And finally, we would like to see New Zealand broadcasters leading as well as following; creating forms of content that are unmistakably our own as well as creatively adapting the best of overseas practice.

I would like to note a couple of other things about the set of objectives that Government has adopted. Each of them attempts to address the interests of the audience as citizens as much or more, than as consumers. That is, the audience is regarded as an end in itself, not a means to some other, commercial end.

Another thing to note is that, while a diversity of local content would go a long way toward meeting these objectives, most of them cannot be met by local content alone. They also hold implications for the quality and variety of the international content that we get to experience.

Ultimately, this set of objectives has been drafted to permit a discussion of quality that does not become detoured into questions of personal taste. They do not in themselves suggest how “quality” could be measured. But they indicate how a framework of assessment might be applied. For example: if broadcasting content is to contribute to a high level of public information and debate, certain standards suggest themselves: comprehensiveness; depth and extent of inquiry; the range of issues and topics covered compared with what is actually going on in the country. These are ways of viewing the question of quality that can further guide policies aimed at achieving the desired objective of an informed public.

There are some people in broadcasting who, if only from simple human pride, will wish to assert that these objectives are all being met today. I appeal to your own experience of broadcasting here and in other countries, your own sense of the potential of these media, and ask you: do you believe that the environment envisaged by these objectives is what we have today?

There are others who will concede that, in some important respects, New Zealand broadcasting is under-performing, but will say that the answer is to pump more money into the existing model. That model is centred of course on the Broadcasting Commission or NZ On Air. As you are aware, the Government announced, in its cultural funding package, to increase the resources available to NZ On Air for both television and radio by $7million. But, as I noted on Morning Report on Monday, there is not enough money in New Zealand on Air to achieve our goals.

But this Government believes that other measures, familiar from overseas practice, need to be examined for the contribution they might make to the achievement of our objectives. These measures may well be compatible with the existing model, but they would alter the way it works. We are aware that in other countries, such as those that we surveyed in the valuable NZ On Air survey Local Content and Diversity, governments have opted, so to speak, to pull several policy levers at the same time. In New Zealand we have attempted to get by with pulling just one, and the results have not been all we would wish.

The measures we are looking at have already been announced. They include the development of a Charter for TVNZ, and the investigation of quota regimes for ensuring certain kinds and levels of local content.

In the case of TVNZ, the Government recognises in the state-owned television company, with a large market share, a potential for public service greater than has been realised to date. A Charter for TVNZ is one of our first initiatives to see how far the objectives I have outlined can be achieved through this means, although it will complement other initiatives we are considering.

TVNZ has maintained a formidable share of the television audience. The Government does not wish to place this achievement in jeopardy. We know that the company itself recognises that there is an unrealised demand for New Zealand content – that the genres we wish to see more of are in fact popular genres. I am also confident that a better provision for the mass audience can be matched with new ways of serving more specialised interests, and that TVNZ is capable of thinking laterally to achieve this balance. It seems sensible in pursuing our objectives to start with the broadcaster that is actually accountable to Government.


I intend to present an outline charter and options for wider consultation to Cabinet in August, with the intention that, following that consultation, we would have the Charter in place in the latter part of this year.

I am writing to various industry members to invite them to speak to the broadcasting officials group, now that we have the context of the introductory papers to work within.

But please note that the Charter won't provide all the answers. One approach would be to introduce the Charter first through TVNZ's Statement of Corporate Intent. Then, following decisions on quota and funding, we would have a more permanent legislative framework.

While we are beginning with work relating to the future of TVNZ, the consequential questions will soon need to be addressed. How will quota fit with a Charter for TVNZ, for example? And, most crucially, who should pay for a greater range of content and how?

To help us answer such questions, Cabinet has directed that a further piece of work should be carried out related ultimately to the quality of broadcast content. This is a review of funding mechanisms. It is intended to:

 Review the current funding structure of NZ On Air
 Consider alternative, including existing overseas, methods for funding public broadcasting; and
 Identify possible approaches to changes to the current funding model in New Zealand.

This work is of course closely related to the issue of quotas and new directions for TVNZ. These complex and interconnected questions will be addressed in the most effective sequence. While some people I meet in broadcasting are already impatient for the outcomes of this work on quotas and funding, I have to tell you that these outcomes will be the fruit of extensive and rigorous research and consultation, but you can expect to see considerable progress this year.

You will also be aware of some of the technological changes facing the broadcasting sector. The transition from analogue to digital television, which is already occurring overseas, brings the promise of higher technical quality for broadcast programmes – that is, enhanced sound and picture quality. It also provides scope for radio spectrum to be used more efficiently. This will allow more programme content to be carried. Potentially, therefore, digital technology will offer:

 more choice in programming; and

 different types of programming (such as interactive services and personalised programme content).

At the same time, digital technology means that services that we have traditionally known as “broadcasting”, “telecommunications” and “information technology” are converging. The old distinctions between services, and the means of delivering services, are going to break down rapidly.

Changing technology does give rise to some policy issues. Allocation of spectrum for digital services is one such issue. Various issues relating to consumer access to broadcasting services also arise – for example, the geographic coverage of digital transmission, standards issues relating to set-top boxes, and access by programme content providers to networks.

I don’t propose to go into these issues today: as I have already mentioned, work is under way. There will be consultation and interaction with the industry and interested parties as it proceeds. I believe, however, that we should see new technology and convergence of services as offering new opportunities, rather than simply as a series of problems.

Radio is not being ignored while we progress public service television policy. Radio New Zealand's charter is due for its first five-yearly review towards the end of the year and I am working with interested parties to determine the best way of doing this.

The needs for Youth Radio are also being examined. You'll be aware that we put on hold the previous Government's decision to reserve spectrum for a Youth Radio Network. That was so we could determine whether young people need additional radio services.

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage is carrying out a three-phase project which will result in a report to me in a couple of months. They are consulting broadcasters to obtain a comprehensive picture of the full range of radio services currently offered to young people. They are consulting youth through focus groups to test the validity of the our broadcasting objectives and to identify the views and behaviours of young people in regards to radio listening. And finally there will be a facilitated forum at Parliament on August the 17th with myself, the Minister of Youth Affairs, Laila Harre and representatives from the focus groups and broadcasters. We will discuss the findings of the research and the implications for youth radio services.

If you haven't already appreciated it, this is another example of this government's consultative, collaborative approach to policy formation, just as what you people come up with today will be taken into account as we make our way through our work programme. I have to leave shortly to fulfil some other engagements as Minister for the Environment and Minister for Biosecurity but I will be back later this afternoon to catch up with your discussions.

These are exciting times and there are new opportunities - but I reiterate that the issues we are dealing with are complex and interrelated. Many of them have not been aired for more than ten years and they deserve our spending some time on them to seek the best solutions possible. We want to look at them laterally and in a way which will produce broadcasting that is relevant and responsive to the needs of NZ citizens in the 21st Century. Nevertheless you will start to see progress in the next six months. And as I have already said you will all contribute to this process, beginning with today's discussions.

ENDS

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