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NZ On Air Chairman Neil Walter Steps Down

NZ On Air Chairman Neil Walter Steps Down

by Tom Frewen

The government’s broadcasting funding agency, New Zealand on Air, is looking for a new chairman to replace Neil Walter who is leaving next month.

Mr Walter’s resignation is revealed in briefing papers for the new broadcasting minister [PDF], Craig Foss, published today by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Mr Walter’s term was to end on November 30 this year. A former secretary of foreign affairs, he was appointed to the board of NZ on Air in December 2006 and elected chairman in January 2007. He is understood to be leaving early for health reasons.

Appointing his replacement is just one of several urgent tasks facing the new minister. Most of them are in the television industry although Mr Foss will also have early involvement in deciding whether to continue the financial squeeze on Radio New Zealand.

The start of transition from analogue to digital television transmission is just one potential source of consumer confusion and irritation that will be directed at two new and inexperienced ministers — Mr Foss (Broadcasting) and Amy Adams (Communications and Information Technology - Breifing paper here [PDF]).

A central part of the ramshackle broadcasting system created by two decades of political and bureaucratic interventions, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is naturally unlikely to recommend, or indeed even perceive, the need for a complete overhaul of the whole structure.

While firmly wedded to the 1980s ideological market concept of the contestable funding model, with NZ on Air at its centre, the ministry reluctantly concedes that it has a “downside” in its reliance on broadcasters actually broadcasting the programmes. The danger in separating the two basic functions in broadcasting — commissioning productions and deciding when they’re put to air — was illustrated by the recent kerfuffle at NZ on Air over the election week screening of Bryan Bruce’s child poverty documentary.

At the same time, the gap between what the public expects to get for the $230 million a year of government spending on “public broadcasting” and the reality of a purely commercial TVNZ will be more exposed and controversial with the approach of digital switchover and the termination of TVNZ7.

Acknowledging this, the ministry’s briefing paper gets it exactly upside-down: “A more commercial TVNZ can be expected to put increasing pressure on NZ on Air to broaden the availability of funding for commercially-attractive genres, specifically drama, comedy, entertainment and popular factual.”

Only if looked at from an industry perspective. From the viewers’ point of view, a more-commercial TVNZ can only increases the demand for non-commercial television, not more “commercially-attractive genres” which, surely, should not require public subsidy.

It comes as no surprise that the briefing papers also reveal that TVNZ has commissioned Cameron Partners once again to undertake another capital structure review. “The review will cover TVNZ’s capital structure (also referred to as gearing), dividend policy (including the possibility and scale of a special dividend), and cost of capital.”

Watch this space!


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