Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

What Agenda Now For TVNZ?

December 1st, 2008

Gordon Campbell on the scrapping of Agenda and the future of state broadcasting

The recent axing of TVNZ’s current affairs programme Agenda has been only the last step in a long decline. The damage was done long ago, with the quarantining of the show to a timeslot when only politicians, their minders and the press gallery would watch the show or read its transcripts. The show really functioned like an interactive version of the broadcasting of Parliament. While critics may feel happy to heap all the blame on TVNZ for scrapping Agenda, the dilemma that TVNZ faces runs deeper than that.

I don’t know what TVNZ was paying Richard Harman’s production company to make Agenda. TVNZ says it is going to make the replacement in-house – and presumably, for less money. No word yet on whether the new show will go into the same unsatisfactory timeslot, or retain the old format. Though if it did, that would surely raise a few intellectual property issues.

The wider picture is how TVNZ can possibly survive as a public broadcaster. The social charter money has been scrapped. The $15 million reserved for charter programmes (and which had already been parked by the Labour government at New Zealand On Air to ensure the money was actually used for charter purposes by TVNZ) will now, under the new government, simply go into NZOA’s general fund, for use by anyone, for anything.

At the same time though, TVNZ is still required under its governing legislation to meet state broadcasting objectives – but without getting the money from the state to enable it to do so. Even worse, the new government wants to extract a larger dividend from TVNZ. The new Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman said as much in an interview with me in the September issue of the Screen Directors Guild magazine TAKE ( not online)

“The issue that we have got in New Zealand is we don’t have a debt problem,” Coleman says, “ we have an asset problem. TVNZ is an asset. The value has been way diminished over the last nine years. We want to see it performing far better.”

Coleman spells it out : “ I mean, [TVNZ] made $375 million of revenue last year, and ended up making a $4 million loss. [TVNZ] could be returning a far greater dividend, as well as producing some great television. So, the original formula was a nine per cent dividend. [Therefore] it should be returning about $33 million to the taxpayer, which would pay for a heck of a lot of other stuff that government wants to do.”

Well, there may be private companies who can deliberately set out to do non-commercial things with less money, while delivering an even bigger dividend to their shareholders – but in the real world, that’s not a winning equation, or a sustainable plan. It seems particularly unfair to TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis, who has brought relative financial stability back to the listing ship that he inherited. As reward, he is now being asked to make TVNZ deliver even more money within a fragmenting market and a stagnating economy. In such a climate, the demise of Agenda is hardly surprising. It follows other news and current affairs shows made during the charter era, such as Assignment, to the boneyard.

There is a solution staring everyone in the face, but one that is unlikely to be embraced. As critics of the Agenda decision would agree, the provision of quality news and current affairs is one of the core services we expect from the state broadcaster. How ironic then, that NZOA – the last defence line left standing against rampant commercialism – does not fund news and current affairs programmes. Presumably, because such state funding would be seen ( and used by politicians) as a dangerous encroachment on TVNZ’s editorial independence,

Hmmm. Even more so, than the current situation – where the state exerts pressure on TVNZ to act more commercially and deliver bigger dividends, and where state news and current affairs are at the mercy of ratings directly linked to ad revenues, and to sponsorship deals with the private sector ? If it comes down to a choice between an el cheapo, commercially driven news on one hand and having our news and current affairs formats funded and monitored by NZOA on the other, I think I’d be tempted to try the latter.

There will be forums next year where such issues could be thrashed out. The new government has promised reviews of both the Film Commission and of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage – and by mid year, the major regulatory review of the converging sectors of broadcasting and telecommunications ( launched by MCH) will conclude.

The future role of NZOA needs to be considered within the context of those reviews. The organization has to be funded sufficiently to fulfil a wider brief – one perhaps, that includes news and current affairs, and that does not merely equate public broadcasting with local content. As Paul Norris and Brian Pauling pointed out last month in their excellent research report
called The Digital Future and Public Broadcasting, our system has not been designed to deliver the full range of public broadcasting content :

“NZOA has interpreted its remit as the furtherance of local content programmes made in New Zealand, and its decisions have done much to consolidate the independent production sector. But quality imported programmes in any genre are no part of its business.

There may be imported programmes in areas that might complement NZOA’s funded programmes – for example music and arts performances by international orchestras or artists, historical costume dramas, or political dramas on international issues. Access by audiences in New Zealand to these sorts of programmes is rather haphazard….. “

In sum, TVNZ now needs to see either (a) an increase in direct funding from the new government to do its job properly as a state broadcaster or (b) indirect funding from NZOA earmarked for news and current affairs and quality imported programmes on TVNZ. Until the new government can sort out which of those options it prefers, it should be shelving any plans to rake off bigger dividends – or arguably, any dividend at all – from TVNZ.

In the meantime, the local production sector has reason to feel worried. As Norris and Pauling point out, local producers have benefitted in the past from NZOA decisions. Yet if we continue down the current path, Agenda will be just one of the items that TVNZ has formerly contracted out that it will feel impelled to bring back in-house, to save money.


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    1. 10 Responses to “What Agenda Now For TVNZ?”

    2. By E on Dec 1, 2008 | Reply

      Very well informed inpass.
      However, it does not mention the public service channel TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, who are direct government funded and their role as the guardians of public service broadcasting.

    3. By T on Dec 4, 2008 | Reply

      The internet will be the source of all media in about 4 years when broadband is suppose to hit 25gb. The 4th Estate aspect has that amount of time to recreate an audience through suppling facts as opposed to spin and blunt propoganda. If it doesn’t attract and maintain that audience in that time, it will not survive the transition to the internet, where it will have to compete with world news organisations and frankly all media. The current generation is lost. Even those at university don’t watch, except perhaps law, pol, hist students.

    4. By H on Dec 5, 2008 | Reply

      Those who control the media control the world.
      NZ media is continuing the job of Education in dumbing down our population. Tomorrow’s Fools (Schools)gave us a National government.

    5. By Henk on Dec 7, 2008 | Reply

      As a newcomer here, interesting to read the comments which show people view TVNZ as a public service television. In fact it offers on the air two low-budget commercial channels which show the cheapest and worst of British and USA television – reject sitcomss etc. It shows an overwhelming, numbing amount of public service adverts (don’t drink, have your breasts examined, don’t have something cooking on the stove and run out to the toilet etc.).
      In general these channels are a waste of space.

    6. By J Matheson on Dec 8, 2008 | Reply

      Agenda was the only vehicle by which we could judge our politicians by watching and listening; the transcripts are great but not as good as watching the body movements and the flickers of the eyes, etc. I’m not surprised National and Act want rid of it.

      It will be interesting to see what TVNZ comes up with. It was very hard to ignore the loading on Agenda with right leaning journalists for questions and reviews – Bernard Hickey and Fran O’Sullivan being two.

      National’s sticky fingers will probably produce an even more extreme right slant.

      We must own our communications, energy, transport, water; privatising and selling off strategic assets (and a public broadcaster is certainly an important asset) is damaging to NZers’ trust in getting better service out of these assets rather than foreign or NZ shareholders getting more in profits.

      It is also dangerous to hand over the very stuff of defence and survival to others who simply do not care or seek to use against us in times of war (or even in peace).

    7. By David Finch on Dec 8, 2008 | Reply

      Good stuff. Where was this kind of analysis when National announced its broadcasting policy earlier this year? Their understanding of “public broadcasting” seems to be little more than “broadcasting to the public”.
      In reply to one of the comments, TVNZ6 and 7 can not operate as effective public service channels merely by being non-commercial – they need far better and more varied programming, which TVNZ is unable or unwilling to give them, partly for fear of them becoming too popular.
      There is very little wrong with TVNZ’s charter, other than the corporation’s willfully subversive interpretation of it and – as the article suggests – a far too narrow focus on local programming which has served production companies better than it has audiences.

    8. By J Matheson on Dec 8, 2008 | Reply

      This ‘wilful’ programming by TV1 to insult NZers with low grade crap, meanwhile shoving a more worthy Agenda into a holding pattern on Sunday morning, goes back to the days when presenters were held to account by the broadcasting minister for wrongly believing they were better than real people who do far more important jobs.

      Now we have the crass Paul Henry (ex Nat candidate)insulting anyone who doesn’t worship his idol Key. It’s quite revolting. Since Oliver Driver went to work at Sunrise, I’ve spent more time over there, only returning to TV1, after a few stiff cups of tea, to witness what cringy Key is up to once a week. (In order to defeat the enemy one must first seek to ‘understand’ their ‘agenda’.) The day he doesn’t appear I’ll know that the arrogant Key does not even pretend to respect NZers anymore and then our future is in real trouble.

      There is something obscene about the way the caretakers of an important NZ-owned asset like Television NZ are doing everything they can to result in TVNZ being sold off.

      Methinks National/Act has been playing its usual ‘NZsucks’ and ‘we want to be a little freemarket America’ game.

    9. By Fran O'Sullivan on Dec 12, 2008 | Reply

      Hard to construe two appearances on Agenda this year as “right-wing” dominance! But glad to know I achieved some cut-through.
      Fran O’Sullivan

    10. By J Matheson on Dec 12, 2008 | Reply

      Fran O’Sullivan

      Please ‘cut-through’ the molasses with your future print love-ins with Key. It causes my teeth to grind and my face to wrinkle in the familiar bleeaugh shape when faced with columnists who are operating outside their objective and journalistic credibility zone.

      You know Key’ll ‘leave you’, Fran, when you’ve outlived your usefulness. What did he promise you and Paula Oliver to be his print mistresses? Well, I already know about Paula…

    11. By D.A. McKenzie on Jan 30, 2009 | Reply

      Who watches TVNZ anymore ???…. I don’t.

      TV1 cant even get weather right let alone News, Very narrow minded, and political orientated Presenters (Not as A Reporter should be).

      In all a a waist of Tax payers money, including the Overpaid Managers and presenters.
      If the Gvt keep TVNZ they need to give it a shake up from the Mail room to the Board room asap.

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