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Strongman Mine Doco - Another Disaster at NZ on Air?

Tom Frewen: Strongman Mine Doco - Another Disaster at NZ on Air?


On Sunday night, courtesy of government broadcast funding agency NZ on Air, taxpayers spent $884,782 for 226,220 TV3 viewers to watch an hour-long documentary about the Strongman mine disaster plus half-an-hour of commercials.

Although NZ on Air’s funding records show that it paid for a 90-minute documentary, the actual running time on Sunday night was barely an hour. Scheduled for 7pm-8.30pm, when roughly twice as many viewers were tuned to TV One, the documentary would have ended at 8pm if it had not been interrupted every 10 minutes by commercial breaks.

As well as being disruptive and irritating, the constant interruption by advertising was nothing less than a desecration of a very fine piece of television, the work of Paula McTaggart (producer-director), Gaylene Preston (director) and Simon Coldrick (editor).

Broadcast on a fully-funded, non-commercial television channel, as opposed to a network dedicated to paying off bank debt or a dividend to the government, the documentary would certainly have been followed by a studio discussion exploring its striking parallels with Pike River.

The bodies of all but two of the 19 miners who died in the 1967 Strongman disaster were recovered by rescue crews which entered the mine soon after the explosion. Management was cleared of blame after an official inquiry found they had been constrained by an “outside agency” which the documentary concluded was probably a coded reference to “the government”.

The heavy commercial load carried by the Strongman documentary raises several questions about NZ on Air’s management of the funds it allocates for television production.

The documentary’s opening credit declared it had made with money from the Platinum Fund, the $15 million annual grant that Labour hoped TVNZ would use for “charter television” and which National switched to NZ on Air for distribution on a contestable basis for the production and broadcast of “quality” programmes. The implication of Sunday night’s broadcast of Strongman is that $5 million from the fund is effectively being used to purchase airtime for commercial networks to earn advertising revenue.

Another implication is that NZ on Air’s local content tally, published in March, of more than 11,000 hours screened in 2011 is overstated by a third and is actually closer to 7000 hours.

Although the television industry measures screen time in “commercial” hours — 22 minutes in every half-hour and 43 minutes in an hour — NZ on Air records its funding decisions in real time. Its Maori counterpart, however, identifies the actual running time for some programmes. Te Mangai Paho’s post-election ministerial briefing paper also makes the astonishing claim that in the last financial year TMP spent $41 million “to purchase 1451 hours [of television programmes], an average per hour cost of $28,236, compared to an average cost of over $85,000 per hour for NZ on Air.”

Surely that figure alone indicates that it’s time for the auditor-general to take a closer look at the way the more than $230 million appropriated by the government each year for “public broadcasting” is being spent.

ends

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