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Current issues in New Zealand television

Current issues in New Zealand television

Lecture to Victoria University of Wellington’s stage two New Zealand Media class. Kirk Building, Kelburn Campus.


Hello to you all. I am very pleased to be here today to talk to you about current issues in New Zealand television. I understand from Dr Dunleavy that this course focuses on the media's contribution to a broader 'culture industry' in New Zealand and what that means in this country.

The Cultural Recovery Package announced three years ago signaled the strength of this government's commitment across the range of cultural activities, and provided the platform for our continuing activity in this area.

Today I can point to a raft of achievements which firmly embed broadcasting as a key component of New Zealand's cultural recovery. I will be talking about the restructuring of Television New Zealand into a public service broadcaster with a Charter mechanisms for supporting local television production the establishment of the Maori Television Service promoting the development of a vibrant screen industry and policy development around digital television


First of all I want to take you back briefly to 1984 when my colleague, Jonathan Hunt, the present Speaker of the House, was appointed Minister of Broadcasting. He had a long interest in broadcasting and began his term with the announcement that there would be a Royal Commission on Broadcasting. This was the first time in New Zealand the subject was examined in any detail.

The Commission favoured the state maintaining its level of regulation and continuing as a commercial and public service broadcaster. However this view was anomalous with a fundamental government policy change.

1986 brought the introduction of the State-Owned Enterprises Act. The act indicated a new direction for government-owned trading organisations in which profitability was the primary objective.

Towards the end of 1987 the government decided that this model would be followed for broadcasting. Social and cultural objectives were well down the list of requirements.

New Zealand moved towards becoming one of the most deregulated broadcasting systems in the world during the 1980s and 1990s. Government decisions were effectively relegated to deciding who should be allocated television frequencies and, latterly, who should buy Television New Zealand.

However one last outpost of public broadcasting survived – Radio New Zealand. The organisation's major achievement in the 1990s was in struggling against the odds to secure its continuing existence as two networks, National Radio and Concert FM.

Under the National government Radio New Zealand fought political reluctance to continue its level of funding. Supporters who were loyal to public radio rallied to the embattled broadcaster's defence, determined to protect and retain what was left of the broadcaster. At that time I was opposition spokesman for broadcasting and a strong advocate for public broadcasting.

In 1993 I introduced the New Zealand Public Radio Charter Bill to give expression to the principles of public broadcasting and secure its future. When the National government introduced the Radio New Zealand Bill in 1995 it did not incorporate a charter. The bill was forwarded to select committee hearings and the work of government officials. By the time it came back the charter, developed from my private member's bill, was included.

Radio New Zealand's charter has been crucial. It has given the organisation discernible goals and an easily justifiable reason for existing. That charter was a precursor, laying the foundation for the construction of the new Television New Zealand charter and its objectives a few years later.

Change in broadcasting landscape

The broadcasting landscape under this government has changed enormously. At the end of 1999 the government reclaimed the right to actively involve itself in broadcasting issues. It aimed to restore the notion that broadcasting has a special place in the nation's life that is deserving of attention and protection.

After nine years of the deregulated, "hands-off" approach of the National government it was time to take stock. When my colleague, Marian Hobbs, was appointed Minister of Broadcasting in 1999 she was faced with resurrecting the lost art of broadcasting policy development. Just 0.8 of a person was dealing with "content issues" in public broadcasting.

Marian Hobbs began the process of developing the broadcasting policies which have resulted in the change of direction and achievements I am about to describe.

The policies recognize that the role of the government includes providing for a range of choice beyond what strictly commercial considerations will produce.

The government also takes the view that in a globalising world, where CNN reports the news across the planet and internationally-sourced programming is cheaper than locally-produced material, we have a responsibility to ensure our publicly-owned channels reflect New Zealand interests, tell New Zealand stories, and interpret foreign events through our eyes.

The role of government in broadcasting

This government has been explicit and consistent about its support for culture in the broadest sense. We are very keen to ensure that New Zealanders have a well-defined sense of their own cultural identity.

We have recognized the need for government to play a stronger role if the cultural, social and economic benefits of the broad range of arts, heritage and broadcasting activities are to be realized. As Minister of Broadcasting I am of course particularly conscious of the cultural power of the broadcast media.

These media are extremely powerful. They can play an essential role in shaping nations – in the way that citizens develop and maintain a sense of the country they live in, and the way that country is perceived elsewhere.

Radio and television have an unparalleled capacity to provide a shared experience, make minority voices heard and to expand the range of topics and issues presented to audiences.

My party made a promise in its 1999 manifesto to improve the quality of public broadcasting and increase levels of local content on New Zealand television. My government has taken steps to ensure that certain desired kinds of broadcast content are available to New Zealanders, in addition to what may be provided commercially.

Advertiser-driven broadcasters are not in a position to realize fully the cultural or civic benefits of broadcasting. They must favour broadcasting that maximizes financial returns. The profit imperative also means that these broadcasters must target certain segments of the population, and not necessarily the population as a whole.

The value of the public broadcaster

The public broadcaster is free of the constraints and pressures advertiser-driven broadcasters find harder to resist. Broadcasters motivated entirely by profit are susceptible to the business interests of their owners and advertisers.

The public broadcaster, as an independent entity with public funding, has a mandate to operate in the public interest. A crisis like the war in Iraq shows why this is so important. Public radio and television have an obligation to provide comprehensive, impartial coverage of the conflict. It is free from the influence of advertisers who may be reluctant to have their products associated with images of brutality, or an unpopular message.

With public radio and television the information needs of the viewers are paramount. There is no pressure to either sensationalise or soften news coverage. Experience shows that at times of heightened national consciousness New Zealanders turn to the public broadcaster. On the first day of the war TV1 news attracted a huge number of viewers with an audience share of 64 percent compared with TV3's 19 percent.

Television New Zealand went commercial free that day through until the end of the Holmes Show at 7.30pm. TVNZ also approached its advertisers well ahead of time, finding out which felt uncomfortable about exposure alongside the war coverage. The coverage was not compromised. Rather some advertisers chose to shift their advertisements out of the news hour.

The determination to re-establish a far greater public service emphasis has led this government to reclaim the right - and the obligation - to be involved in broadcasting. Some of this reclamation has not been straightforward – some of the levers and mechanisms available to government had been disestablished.

Notwithstanding this, we have made clear progress in a number of areas, including the new legislation for Television New Zealand; New Zealand content on radio, and Maori television.

Television New Zealand Act and the Charter

The Charter that is included in the Television New Zealand Act came into effect on 1 March this year. The government allocated $12 million (GST inclusive) in the 2002 Budget to assist TVNZ in its implementation of its Charter.

The funding will allow the national broadcaster to give effect to the Charter as fully as possible – including programming in a wider range of genres than those normally supported by NZ On Air. The legislative mandate now requires them to target a wider range of audiences with wider viewing expectations than purely commercial broadcasters can provide.

As well as Charter funding TVNZ will have continued access to NZ On Air funding. In last year’s Budget we increased the baseline funding by an extra $6 million, giving the agency a total of $97 million to allocate to programme-makers on a contestable basis.

In this way the government can be seen to be providing ‘double strength’ support to our public television broadcaster in its enhanced cultural and civic role.

The Charter requires TVNZ to feature programming that serves varied interests and informational needs and age groups, including tastes and interests not generally catered for by other national television broadcasters. It seeks to extend the range of ideas and experiences available to New Zealanders.

TVNZ, among other Charter objectives that aim to explore and celebrate diversity, is required to ensure in its programmes and programme planning the participation of Maori and the presence of a significant Maori voice.

The government wants to give New Zealanders the opportunity to become well-informed global citizens. The Charter requires TVNZ to feature international programmes of the highest standard and to provide independent, in-depth coverage and analysis of domestic and international news and current affairs.

In addition, we want to realize 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.

However this does not give TVNZ a mandate to screen dull, boring programmes. TVNZ is directed to play a leading role in New Zealand television by setting standards of programme quality, to take creative risks and to experiment.

The Charter is not prescriptive with respect to the detail of programmes. It indicates in broad terms the kind of content TVNZ is expected to deliver. Decisions on the detail of programming must of course always be taken by TVNZ.

Ministers must allow public broadcasters to operate at arms length, without political interference. The Act makes it clear that ministers cannot interfere in the detail of programme decisions.

New TVNZ structure

The Television New Zealand Act not only introduces the Charter but also restructures TVNZ into a Crown company. The overarching objective of the new structure is to restore the public broadcasting functions that had “disappeared” under the SOE era.

The Act establishes Television New Zealand as a solely television business in the form of a Crown-Owned Company, like Radio New Zealand. This broadcasting arm is comprised of TV One, TV2, digital and satellite services.

The objectives for Television New Zealand are to give effect to its Charter obligations, whilst maintaining its commercial performance – but without the demands inherent in a purely commercial operation. That is, it is a television business with a focus on production and programming, partly subsidised as a public broadcaster, but still dependent on advertising revenue. It has both social and commercial objectives.

Transmission Holdings Ltd (THL) is the umbrella company responsible for the transmission or linking businesses of TVNZ. THL includes Broadcast Communications Limited (BCL) and TVNZ Australia Ltd, and is set up as a separate State Owned Enterprise. This allows THL to concentrate on fully commercial objectives.

The separation and new structures come into effect on 1st July.

Supporting local production

This government takes seriously its role of promoting the development of an environment where jobs and businesses in New Zealand’s film and television industry can grow.

Our screen industry is specifically recognized in the Charter. TVNZ is required to support and promote the talents and creative resources of New Zealanders and of the independent film and television industry.

This is in line with recommendations from the Screen Production Industry Taskforce, which was established under the Government’s Growth and Innovation Framework and has members drawn from the television and film industries.

Last month the Taskforce released its final report. The report recommends including a long-term approach to growing the industry and investing in the necessary skills and infrastructure required to achieve the goals the Taskforce has set.

Screen production is already a $1.3 billion industry with TV contributing $711 million and film and video $575 million. The Taskforce has set a growth target which would see the screen production industry doubling in size within five years.

The report is now open for comment and consultation before the Government gives consideration to its response.

Local content

The government is firmly committed to funding local content on public radio and television.

Increasing the amount of New Zealand content we get to see and hear is an important part of developing national identity and showcasing the work of talented New Zealanders.

Results of a NZ On Air survey released in November last year show that more than three quarters of New Zealanders want to see New Zealand programming on television and radio. Two thirds want to see the number of New Zealand-made television programmes increase.

New Zealand programmes have to stack up against their overseas counterparts to attract an audience. That means the acting, writing and technical standards have to be excellent. The survey revealed clear appreciation for the story-telling and acting skills in many programmes, representing a significant advance since the research two year earlier.

New Zealand documentaries and children’s programmes are highly regarded but the survey indicated that comedy is not quite right. The focus groups thought that some scripted local comedy was too ‘try hard’, not well scripted, with forced acting, and lower technical standards.

But the focus groups were firmly of the opinion that NZ On Air should continue to support homegrown comedy, because our own comedy shows – and being able to laugh at ourselves – are important

Higher levels of local content, however, will depend on effective use of existing income as well as any further increases in funding to NZ On Air and TVNZ.

Voluntary targets for enhancing local content

Commercial radio’s code of practice for New Zealand music is a good model of a voluntary quota operating successfully. Figures released at the beginning of this year showed that commercial radio stations exceeded the targets they had set for New Zealand music: Kiwi music made up 15 percent of the commercial radio play list last year, beating the 13 percent target set under the code.

We remain committed to a voluntary approach to enhancing local content – with respect to quantity, quality and diversity – on television also.

A new television industry group has been established to develop voluntary targets for New Zealand programming for the major free-to-air networks. The group – comprising representatives of TVNZ, TV3, NZ On Air and independent producers – will have a continuing role in managing the targets.

The development of the Code of Practice for New Zealand Music Content on Radio is very encouraging but we hope for a similarly successful result for the Television Local Content Group.

In setting targets the group will identify genres like children’s drama or comedy programmes that need development or emphasis at a particular time. They will take into account available funding and the resources of the broadcasters.

This government will continue its policies to boost the “supply side”, by its funding increases to the public broadcasting agencies. However it sees the potential for the Music Code and targets to be set by the TV Local Content Group to form a key part of a virtual circle.

Increased radio play of kiwi music stimulates sales and production, which in turn stimulates audience demand for New Zealand popular songs and music. Increased, or better produced, local television programmes draw bigger audiences which attract more advertising revenue that can be put back into local production.

Television advertising

Under the Television New Zealand Act, TVNZ is no longer restricted to the pursuit of purely commercial objectives but it is still intent on attracting high levels of advertising revenue.

In a small country like New Zealand the government cannot hope to fully fund public television. We are forging a new approach that balances social, cultural and commercial objectives.

Last year television advertising across all networks generated the highest return ever reported by the industry. As a chartered public service broadcaster TVNZ can be expected to repeat the success of similar networks overseas, like the BBC, and continue to maintain its audiences.

This is expected to be particularly valued by advertisers since TVNZ, as the national broadcaster, can deliver major audiences in an increasingly fragmented media environment.

Delivering a wide range of audiences to advertisers is critical to the industry’s success. It also fulfills the government’s objective of ensuring TVNZ’s programming choices have wide appeal, while, at the same time, meeting the needs of particular audiences that have been ignored in the past.

Many in the industry believe there will be a drop off in advertising revenue because some programming intended for minority groups will not appeal to mass audiences. I expect TVNZ will be keeping a close eye on any erosion. However, balanced against that, we have to weigh up the social and cultural wealth these programmes generate.

The social effect of television advertisements themselves has been highlighted recently with public debate about advertisements for fast foods, alcohol and pharmaceuticals. The debate arises from genuine public concern about problems that can emerge from exposure to irresponsible images and information. Many consumers link the effects of advertising with child obesity, teenage binge drinking and uninformed purchasing of pharmaceuticals.

With increasing public scrutiny I think it is timely for advertisers to examine whether they are pushing the boundaries further than are tolerable and I have urged them to maintain a position of integrity and social responsibility.

The advertising industry has a good record of acting responsibly with advertising codes developed by the Advertising Standards Authority being observed in both letter and spirit. However there is low public tolerance for abuses of these codes.

Television violence project

The depiction and incidence of violence on television continues to be an issue of concern to New Zealanders. Parents, in particular, worry about the consequences for their children of viewing violent programming.

This government has been responsive to those concerns.

The TVNZ Charter requires the public service broadcaster to play a leading role in New Zealand television by complying with free-to-air codes of broadcasting practice, in particular any codes with provisions on violence.

$300,000 has been set aside for a government project that examines the screen portrayal of violence. The study results from a Green Party initiative to investigate violence on television, for which the money was negotiated during last year’s Budget. As part of the cooperation agreement between the government and the Greens the project will continue.

I appointed a working group in December last year. The group includes your lecturer Dr Trisha Dunleavy, amongst eight other broadcasters, programme makers, consumer advocates and academics. They have commissioned a study to examine contemporary international research on the social effects of exposure to television violence. It is also looking at the relevance of this research to the New Zealand environment.

The study will include findings from a comprehensive monitoring exercise of what is currently shown on our television screens, particularly during times when children are likely to be watching.

Importantly the study will also evaluate the tools available in new Zealand to control the level and nature of violence on television – the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Broadcasting Act 1989, codes of practice and the TVNZ Charter – and see how these stack up with responses in other countries.

The working group is expected to report to me as Minister of Broadcasting in September 2003.

Maori television

Early this year the decision on the transmission platform for Maori television the announcement of extra funding for the service marked a milestone in New Zealand’s broadcasting history.

In making the announcements my colleague, Hon Parekura Horomia, Minister of Maori Development, said that the Maori Television Service (MTS) would demonstrate its value and significance to the maturing of the nation.

MTS is using a platform combining UHF and satellite transmission.

MTS will own and control its own transmission facilities and a UHF platform, being flexible, will allow for expansion of coverage in stages. BCL, which belongs to TVNZ’s transmission arm, is constructing the platform, using UHF frequencies reserved for Maori language broadcasting since the early 1990s.

The development of this service fulfils a Treaty obligation on behalf of the Crown to enhance and maintain Te Reo Maori. It will be a unique broadcasting service that will significantly enrich the cultural landscape of New Zealand, bringing into our homes Maori perspectives, heritage, culture and language.

The Service will be complemented by provisions in the TVNZ Charter relating to programming that ensures "... the presence of a significant Maori voice." NZ On Air will continue to fund and TVNZ to screen programmes by and about Maori for a mainstream audience.

The establishment of MTS has cemented relationships between the Maori broadcaster and TVNZ. Though MTS is independent they both see themselves as under the same public service television umbrella accessing public money. MTS has an arrangement that allows it to access TVNZ’s archives and the two organisations have begun discussions about possible co-productions.

Digital television developments

Another major development is around digital television. The government is signaling a digital future for public television in New Zealand. It has established a work programme to resolve key issues by mid-2003.

Currently Sky television is the only digital broadcaster in New Zealand, reaching over 30% of households. However New Zealand is expected to follow other countries and, over time, replace analogue television services with digital television.

The government is in the process of developing policies on digital television to ensure that private and public broadcasters are best able to use the technology.

This process is complex, as government has at least three distinct roles in respect to digital television. It is taking these into account as it seeks to determine a way forward: allocating and managing spectrum on which commencement of digital terrestrial television relies; setting the market framework which ensures competition safeguards are adequate and standards are adopted and maintained; and the implications of digital television for Television New Zealand and the Maori Television service, and programming funded through NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho.

The Government has released a recent Cabinet paper that describes each of these roles. Officials will report mid year on each of these issues. The release of this paper will help to ensure that these policies are developed in an open environment and that industry will have an opportunity to have continued input.

Digital satellite television is already here. A key question for government is what steps it should take, if any, to encourage further uptake of digital television. The starting point is that broadcasters and viewers should be free to choose the platform by which digital television is provided, based on factors such as cost, content and reliability.

Many in the broadcasting industry see digital television as the inevitable replacement of analogue. However the government acknowledges that it is premature to set an analogue switch-off date because the transition to digital will clearly take some time. This is what experience in other countries has shown.


The future of public television in New Zealand is very much brighter and healthier than it was three and a half years ago. This government has firmly put a stake in the ground and reclaimed its right to be involved in broadcasting:

Television New Zealand is established as a chartered broadcaster with social as well as commercial objectives;

the Maori Television Service will initially provide coverage to three quarters of New Zealanders, increasing to 86 percent in the next couple of years;

an industry-led Television Local Content Group is to set voluntary targets for the quantity, quality and diversity of programming;

the Screen Production Industry Taskforce was one of four taskforces established under the government’s Growth and Innovation Framework. It is an example of the government working with industry, from broadcaster to filmmakers, to chart out a strategy for the vibrant screen industry;

this government has been responsive to genuine public concern about the possible effects of screen violence on viewers; and

we are taking an active role in developing policies around digital television that take account of the place of public service broadcasting.

I believe these are important issues for the future development and cultural identity of this country. They do, of course, require our ongoing consideration. I, as Minister of Broadcasting, and this government intend to provide a secure home for public broadcasting.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say and welcome your questions.

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