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Television NZ and the current broadcasting context

Hon. Steve Maharey
18 August 2004 Speech Notes

Television New Zealand and the current broadcasting context

Lecture to students at New Zealand Broadcasting School, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology.


Hello to you all. I am very pleased to be here today to talk to you about New Zealand television, about Television New Zealand in particular, and about the implementation of the Television New Zealand Charter. I will speak to you also about other elements of the government¡¦s policy programme, and the road we are taking into the future.


First of all, though, I want to take you back briefly to 1986 and 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.

For the next ten years New Zealand moved towards becoming one of the most deregulated broadcasting systems in the world during the 1980s and 1990s. The "hands-off" approach of the National administration meant that government decisions were effectively restricted to allocating television frequencies and funding the purchase of local programmes through NZ On Air. Radio New Zealand was a stand-alone public service broadcaster.

Change in government¡¦s approach

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

We began the process of developing the broadcasting policies which have resulted in a clear change of direction and significant achievements in broadcasting and allied sectors.

Government¡¦s achievements

Let me run through some of those achievements. They include work such as the development of objectives for broadcasting content, the Television New Zealand Act 2003 and the direct funding of TVNZ for the Charter, about which I will speak more specifically shortly.

We have also passed the Maori Television Service Act 2003 and the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2004.

Maori Television has been welcomed by New Zealand viewers, and is becoming an accepted part of the broadcasting infrastructure of this country. It has attracted viewing numbers that have silenced some who might have criticized it.

Cumulative figures from Nielsen Media Research for the first twelve weeks of the service indicated that 358 thousand people aged over 5 years had watched Maori Television via UHF frequency. 65 percent of those viewers were non-Maori. Other research indicated that 70 percent of Maori have watched Maori Television. The service has been inundated with positive responses from New Zealanders about the programmes and flavour of the channel.

We have made considerable progress in strengthening Radio New Zealand. New funding is allowing the transition of National Radio to FM and will provide for a greater range of programming. Latest figures show the network is New Zealand's number one radio station in terms of nationwide market share among people aged 15 years and over.

The RNZ Amendment Act was the outcome of the first review of Radio New Zealand¡¦s charter, and strengthened the organization as a public service broadcaster, emphasizing its relationship with its audiences.

We have acknowledged the important role of community broadcasters and updated the Framework for Community and Access Broadcasting.

We have encouraged regional and community television. Subsequent to government updating and revising its policy objectives for non-commercial broadcasting, we have allocated UHF frequencies to regional operators in Nelson, Tararua, Taranaki, Wellington, Northland, Auckland, Oamaru and Gisborne. As audiences in Auckland and Taranaki have already found, the existence of regional non-commercial television greatly increases access to local and internationally diverse programming.

We have established the pilot national Pacific Radio Network, Niu FM, and are conducting an assessment of its effectiveness.

We have reserved part of the FM spectrum for public radio services, and made it possible for National Radio to broadcast on FM.

The Radio New Zealand International digital transition is underway.

Cabinet has also made preliminary decisions on digital television. A working group of officials and broadcasters is addressing the complex issues raised by digitalization, to ensure a coherent approach in the future. Digital television presents challenges and opportunities for public broadcasting and New Zealand content that is unlikely to be viable without public funding.

We have supported local screen production through the establishment of a taskforce and consequential work by government in consultation with the industry. The government has undertaken a review of its screen funding agencies which has resulted in the creation of a coordination group, comprising the key organizations in the field. The Group will consider cross-sector issues which will enable co-ordinated government discussions with industry bodies. Such bodies include the Screen Council which was established as a recommendation of the Taskforce as, the industry group charged with increasing foreign earnings.

We have commissioned a substantial report on the issue of TV violence, and are currently considering its recommendations.

We have increased public funding for broadcasting by more than 70%. This funding has moved from $108 million in the 99/00 financial year, to $185 million in 03/04.

The role of government in culture and broadcasting

Of course, this work in broadcasting and associated sectors has taken place in a broader public policy context. This government has been explicit and consistent about its support for ¡¥culture¡¦ in general. 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 particularly conscious of the power of the broadcast media. They can play an essential role in shaping nations ¡V in the way that citizens develop and maintain a sense of the country they live in, and the way that country is perceived elsewhere. 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 that New Zealanders have access to media that reflect New Zealand interests, tell New Zealand stories, and interpret foreign events through our eyes.

We have a responsibility to both acknowledge and exploit the capacity of television and radio to provide shared experiences, to make minority voices heard, to expand the range of topics presented to audiences, and to enable people to engage, actively, with the issues that concern them as citizens of this country.

Let me make it clear that I value the contribution of private broadcasters to these processes. I think our society is best served by a ¡¥mixed broadcasting economy¡¦, where privately owned media are available alongside public broadcasters.

The willingness of private broadcasters to sign up to targets for New Zealand music, for example, has resulted in tremendous growth in the percentage of local content on our radio stations ¡V with obvious spin-offs for those who make music in this country. There was an all time record annual high in 2003 of 17.75% local music content on air, and an all time weekly high in the last week of May this year of 25.47%. I do congratulate the industry for the work it has done in this field. It has been followed by the willingness of television companies to sit down with producers¡¦ representatives and develop local content targets, as members of the Television Local Content Group.

The value of the public broadcaster

But commercial broadcasters are, quite reasonably, motivated primarily by profit, and are susceptible to the business interests of their owners and advertisers. They target certain segments of the population, and not the population as a whole. They are not in a position to realize fully the cultural or civic benefits of broadcasting.

The public broadcaster is ideally free of the constraints and pressures advertiser-driven broadcasters find harder to resist. Even when ¡V as with TVNZ ¡V it retains a certain dependence on advertising revenue, public broadcasting is able to operate with reference to four key public broadcasting principles:
„h the principle of universality ¡V broadcast content should address the entire population and be ¡¥used¡¦ by as many people as possible;
„h diversity ¡V which is complementary to universality, and means that broadcasting should reflect the diversity and range of public interests;
„h independence ¡V broadcasters should not be subject to political influence or dominated by commercial pressures, and should be enabled to act in the public interest; and
„h quality ¡V the provision of quality services in terms of individual programmes, channel schedules and the total range of services offered to and valued by audiences.

Television New Zealand Act and the Charter

The Television New Zealand Charter is predicated on these public broadcasting principles. It became law with the passing of the Television New Zealand Act 2003, which came into effect on 1 March last year.

Let me add that the Television New Zealand Act not only introduced the Charter but also restructured TVNZ into a Crown company, a change I consider to be of equal significance. The overarching objective of the new structure is to restore the public broadcasting functions that had ¡§disappeared¡¨ in 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.

I am sure that many of you will have looked at the detail of the Charter, and all of you, no doubt, have thought about what its existence means to you as a member of the Television New Zealand audience. You may also have thought about what it means to you as a current or future New Zealand taxpayer, contributing to the direct funding that goes to TVNZ to assist in the implementation of the Charter. In this financial year, the government is providing TVNZ with $16 million for this purpose.

In brief, 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. And 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.

Among other Charter objectives that aim to explore and celebrate diversity, TVNZ 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 every 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.

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 certainly allow public broadcasters to operate at arms length, without political interference. Other sections of the Act, as well as the language of the Charter itself, provide for such independence.

When I spoke last April about the Charter to another group of students, at Victoria University in Wellington, I felt compelled to reassure them on another point also - that the Charter did not give TVNZ a mandate to screen dull, boring programmes. I believe that at the time supporters of the Charter had recently been described by some of my Opposition colleagues as ¡¥tree huggers¡¦. I recall some misdirected references to The Sound of Music.

Suffice it to say that I believe the debate has moved on. The Charter is no longer feared as a cloak of worthiness, draped over our leading TV broadcaster, rendering it unappealing to viewers, as well as to the advertisers whose business remains an essential component in its viability.

In fact, TVNZ has turned around a slide in viewership figures and recaptured important ground in the competitive prime-time Auckland market. It can now again claim that on any given night during prime time more than 70 percent of all people watching television will be tuned to TV One or TV2. In spite of alarmist predictions to the contrary, it is proving an extremely popular vehicle for advertisers.

And given that the debate has moved on, you might well ask, where has it moved on to?

The implementation of the Charter

Well, there is no doubt that there are those who challenge the effect of the Charter, questioning the degree of difference it is making.

With all due respect, I think those people miss the point. Or, in fact, several points.

Firstly, it was never the government¡¦s assumption or intention that the Charter would make a sudden, radical change to the way that TVNZ presents itself. Changes to TVNZ ¡V like changes in the broadcasting mix generally ¡V are best done incrementally. In the Policy-speak of government, we like to say things are ¡¥robust¡¦ and ¡¥durable¡¦. I think we do far better in ensuring the robustness and durability of a Charter-driven TVNZ if we seek an evolutionary, not a revolutionary approach. We want the objectives of the Charter to become integrated with the day-to-day operation of the organization. We don¡¦t want to create instruments of force ¡V sanctions and coercions - to beat at the broadcaster with.

TVNZ is not a small business, able to turn on a ten-cent piece. It operates in a field that requires long-term planning, detailed strategies, forecasts and budgets and contracts and schedules. The government must respect that fact of TVNZ¡¦s nature. At the same time, it holds to a legitimate expectation that all of TVNZ¡¦s decisions, since the passing of the Television New Zealand Act, have been informed by the existence of the Charter.

In fact, I know that many of the decisions made by the broadcaster before the passing of the Act were made in anticipation of the Charter. And even before the Charter was spoken of, TVNZ still accessed NZ On Air funding to serve minority audiences. (It still receives a significant proportion of the funding made available through NZ On Air.) It was not without a platform on which to construct its response to the Charter; and its status as a public broadcaster gives it a head start in perceptions of its credibility and integrity.

And finally, of course, there are areas where the effect of the Charter is already clearly visible to viewers. TVNZ has made strenuous efforts to engage with its audiences. It has taken roadshows to the regions. It has relocated to other centres for the production of some episodes of its programmes. Its website now provides ¡¥added value¡¦ to television viewers. It is exploring the idea of creating a third channel. In terms of programming, current affairs discussions, the National Anthem weekend and new styles of youth programming indicate that the government¡¦s investment in the Charter is paying cultural and civic dividends.

For all my confidence in the organization, I intend to keep a close eye on TVNZ to make sure that those dividends continue to be paid. I receive detailed reports about the expenditure of the $16 million allocation. It is harder, of course, to develop quality measures that apply to the performance of the organization as a whole - this is an issue that is being grappled with internationally, and one with which my officials and I will continue to engage.

The key point, though, is that the Charter has positioned the public TV broadcaster to play an effective public broadcasting role - and this role will, as time goes by, become increasingly apparent to the national audience. TVNZ will itself become an increasingly important part of our culture and our civic life.

Where to from here

I think I can safely say that, despite the energy I have given to the Broadcasting portfolio, I have not at this point worked myself out of a job. The broadcasting sector is complex and dynamic. We must respond accordingly ¡V and go on responding - if we are to ensure that broadcasting provides the range of information, in the fullest sense, that New Zealand needs.

Now that much of the programme the government came in with in 1999 is in place ¡V with the TVNZ Act as the centrepiece ¡V we have been turning our minds to the next five years. We want to secure what we have gained, and make sure that our policies are prepared for what is likely to be a period of significant change in broadcasting.

In the second half of last year through to earlier this year I consulted with public broadcasting agencies and private sector interests on what the government¡¦s priorities for the remainder of the decade should be. I issued a paper that took stock of the changes made to date and asked questions about future strategy. That stock-take paper can be read on the website of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. That¡¦s ¡V not to be confused with, which will connect you to a Holden dealer in Whangarei.

The Ministry, in collaboration with others including this School, staged an international conference on the Future of Public Broadcasting, in November last year. (The proceedings can be read ¡V and heard ¡V on the website

The result of this reflection and consultation is likely to be a new programme of action ¡V strategic in outlook if not amounting to a single grand strategy ¡V to extend the direction of our policies into an exciting but challenging future. I am still discussing the elements of this programme with my colleagues, but you can expect that measures to reinforce the place of our public broadcasters in the mixed economy of broadcasting will be prominent.

This, then, is only the end of the beginning. As Minister I expect that I will continue to be confronted with questions of local content, of structure, funding, globalisation, digitalisation, independence, accountability, viability, feasibility, public good, merit goods, and whether or what Mr Smith of Sumner thought of this week¡¦s episode of Eating Media Lunch.

What is the ¡¥right¡¦ level of funding for our broadcasting agencies, and how will we recognize it? I envisage that, notwithstanding the significant increase in broadcasting funding that has taken place under this government, more funding will continue to be sought. I acknowledge, for example, that TVNZ is still highly dependent on advertising revenue, compared to its sister public broadcasters in comparable countries. We must make certain that we have in place a robust basis for making appropriate funding decisions.

Where is globalisation taking us? Well, the process of globalisation will not stop, and its impact is felt, seen and heard most graphically in broadcasting. Global media ownership and new digital technologies might reduce the viability and focus of local programming ¡V unless New Zealanders are alert to preserving and developing our capacity to reflect ourselves. There are clear implications here for our policies on the strengthening of local content and local production, and the entrenching of the public broadcaster model.

What does the growth of subscription TV mean for New Zealand? Pay TV has now secured a base in 40% of New Zealand households. Its multi-channel, digital services and content selection (dominated by commercial, global offerings) are currently leading viewer expectations. Unless free-to-air broadcasting offers additional and, eventually, digital services as soon as possible, New Zealanders¡¦ access to public broadcasting may be compromised.

These questions, and the many others that go along with them, are not mine alone to answer. In fact, nearly all of them require careful discussion between such players as government, the broadcasting industry, the production industry commentators and consumers of our broadcasting system, as our programme for the next five years unfolds. I will be pleased to be part of that process.

And I am pleased, too, to respond now to your thoughts on what I have said today. No doubt you have some questions of your own.


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