The dumbing-down of TVNZ, Bill Southworth

Stand and Deliver
Ian Johnstone
Cape Catley, $29.95
ISBN 0 90856170 9

A story is doing the rounds that a producer recently proposed a documentary on poverty to one of our television networks. He/she wanted to record the daily struggles of a family trying to exist on the benefit. “Great,” said the network, “we’ll send the parents to Queensland for a fortnight and film Kerre Woodham looking after the kids on the benefit”. Tee hee. What a whizz. Sexy television, eh?

The story could be apocryphal, but it could also easily be true. Commercial imperatives have so degraded television that the first question programmers ask now is probably not: “Is this story important?” but “How do we jazz it up?”

Certainly there has been an explosion of low-cost infotainment programmes on everything from blind dating to schmaltzy community working bees – fronted by an assortment of sports persons and television “personalities”, people essentially famous for being famous. The Dominion‘s television reviewer, Jane Bowron, has described such schlock as being “beneath criticism”. “Real TV” has been added to the mix. It mainly consists of police footage of police car chases on Californian freeways or Midwestern farmhouses being swept away by tornadoes, floods or some other horseman of the Apocalypse.  (Real TV was allegedly discovered during an actors’ strike in California: “Hey, this stuff is great, and it costs less than using real actors.”)

If you’re in the business of selling soap – and commercial television is in the business of selling soap – such programmes make sense. Just as millions of Britons by-pass real newspapers every day to buy the Sun, we have been discovering that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have such gross and untutored appetites that they are willing to subject themselves to this cheap, poor quality television; the son of television that people like Ian Johnstone definitely didn’t used to make.

Johnstone has spent most of his working life in broadcasting. He was always associated with quality public television and in his autobiography Stand and Deliver he makes an eloquent call for its return. Such pleas are becoming more common. In his Top o’ the Morning programme, Brian Edwards has also commented that public dissatisfaction with television is running at unprecedented levels. Perhaps Johnstone and Edwards are more than just old-timers nostalgic for some imagined glorious lost age of public broadcasting. They may be giving voice to widespread concerns. I hope they are.

People like Johnstone and Edwards who would like to see a higher cultural level in television, and more contextual, in-depth news and current affairs, are often described as “elitist” by the managers of the current system, as though using objective standards of quality measurement is somehow undemocratic. The crude ratings statistics have nearly become everything. Audience size seems almost the only measure of quality.

Commercial television (of course) has to be about selling audiences to advertisers. Its shareholders cannot reasonably be expected to take on the burden of providing in-depth current affairs and news or culturally uplifting programmes. Their managers know the more serious and complex a story is, the smaller its audience will be. Perhaps broadcasting is a species of what some economists call “market failure”. Just as markets normally struggle unsuccessfully to meet society’s wider goals for health and education, free market broadcasting fails to meet society’s wider cultural and informational goals. The market cannot afford to pay for the people and the resources necessary to make the quality television – and make a profit at the same time.

Johnstone doesn’t hesitate to engage his reader in debate on these issues. He asks us, in effect, whether we want what every other country of our type has: a BBC-style public television system, giving the range of programming and quality television that commercial television fails to do. He tells us what we only have to look into our recent past to discover: that it is only publicly-funded broadcasting which can afford to create a regular diet of quality programmes which will inform public discourse and bring the full range of our culture to us. He says public television aims for quality outcomes, not commercial ones.

When Ord Minnett Securities (NZ) Limited said in a recent report that TVNZ’s public broadcasting functions were so limited that they could not be used as an argument against its sale, they were, unhappily, being perfectly logical. Ord Minnett dealt with TVNZ as the market asset it has become, rather than the cultural asset it once was. The debate over whether or not Television New Zealand should be privatised is an enormous waste of time. TVNZ is not a public broadcaster. It hasn’t been one for at least a decade. The debate should be focussing on what we replace TVNZ with.

Instead of debating what sort of public television we should have – how we can set it up, what it should cost etc – the major political parties remain silent in this area. They have retreated from the field, assuming there is no public appetite for the cost (what is it, really?) of re-establishing a proper public television system. Instead, the debate about our most powerful and popular means of mass communication has been side-tracked by the issue of whether or not TVNZ should be privatized, with few pausing to ask what it is we would actually be selling. It is certainly not a public television system. We haven’t had that since television was deregulated in the mid-1980s. TVNZ is just like any other commercial network. Its job is to return a profit to its shareholder – the government – and it has done so year by year by not spending tens of millions of dollars on making programmes for us. Don’t blame the people who work there, this is what the politicians required them to do. We may pay a license fee to New Zealand On Air but they then hand over about $30 million of it (the figure varies year by year) to fund programmes on TVNZ. TVNZ normally gives at least this amount (the last year was a bad one) back to the government as a shareholder’s dividend. Go figure. A cynic might say we are in effect handing $30 million of our television fee back to the government each year as a dividend.

When countries look at ways to fund public television, they have a much wider variety of choices than the limited options normally discussed by politicians in New Zealand. The badly-flawed New Zealand On Air model is simply one of them. There are also the BBC licence-fee model and the tax-funded models of Australia and Canada. Another possibility is a tax on television advertising itself – to generate the funds to make the programmes advertising-based television fails to make. New Zealand’s solution to setting up a public broadcasting channel could be a mix of all or some of these systems, with perhaps provision for some unobtrusive advertising and commercial sponsorship.

The New Zealand On Air model is flawed because it has allowed itself to be captured too much by commercial considerations. The channels are able to dictate to independent producers the shape and content of NZOA-funded programmed to make them fit into the channels’ “commercial mix”. The NZOA-funded programmed must appeal to the audiences the channels want to sell to advertisers, which explains why so much poor, formulaic programming has been publicly funded. Unintentionally too the system can encourage the promotion of conservative, commercially-oriented viewpoints. As an independent producer, I suggested to a channel that it support an NZOA-funded documentary which would look at the nature of our “economic recovery” – to see who the real winners and losers had been. It was dismissed without real evaluation as being “too National Programme” and “too Alliance”.

Ian Johnstone opts for the setting up of about 35 community-based stations, governed by elected and appointed community boards. They would be established by the proceeds of the sale of TVNZ (this would give them about $15 million each) and they would each get their share of the current licence fee and a small levy placed on network advertisers. Production quotas for local programming could be set, as would the amount of advertising they could carry. The stations would pool their best programmes. The scheme certainly sounds worth considering. It has elements in it similar to the high-quality PBS system in the USA, and the diverse nature of its funding would ease the burden on everyone. My only quibble is that, unlike PBS, it does not appear to have a network news element such as the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour in it.

Reform is certainly needed because as Johnstone so aptly puts it:

In countries where the public water supply is polluted with giardia and hepatitis, rich people buy bottled water or pay for it to be brought in from elsewhere. Middle income people filter the impurities out of the water. Poor people drink straight from the tap and suffer the consequences.

It is the same with New Zealand’s public television. To escape its advertising and poor programming, rich viewers hire videos, go to the cinema, and pay for television brought in from elsewhere. Middle income viewers tape their television and then filter out the rubbish, fast forwarding through their VCRs. Poor viewers watch it straight from the set and suffer the consequences.

The first part of the book covers Johnstone’s childhood in Britain and then his time as a district officer in Northern Rhodesia. As one would expect from an accomplished journalist, the writing style is fluid and even becomes quite lyrical as Johnstone describes an African scene or a Samoan village come to life early in the morning.

Johnstone fetched up at the NZBC in the 1960s and watched it shed some of its unappealing characteristics as a government department. He was not blinkered to its close political control or the overly-cautious approach of the career civil servants who ran it. However he also watched its transition into the more creative organizations that eventually became Television One and Television Two. Working for Television One in the late 1970s, Johnstone and his team made a series of memorable documentaries on apartheid in South Africa called Black Future. He picked up a Feltex television award for the series, a series which he rightly regards both as a highlight of his career and as something that it would not have been possible to make under earlier broadcasting regimes. Ironically, although in theory the series would be easier to make today in our more libertarian atmosphere, it probably wouldn’t be commissioned because it would be regarded as “too serious” for commercial television audiences.

Although Johnston has continued to make programmes of distinction up until more recent times, he cannot but see the lost opportunities that have been a part of the overall history of broadcasting:

Strangely, New Zealanders, and the broadcasters who are supposed to serve them, have just stood by and watched as successive governments have tinkered with the peoples broadcasting system. In every other civilised country the national broadcaster is a valued and safeguarded national treasure. BBC, ABC, CBC, PBS and their counterparts across Europe have changed with the times, but continue to serve their publics, respected contributors to culture and debate, guarantors of citizens’ rights. Here, politicians have hammered and twisted public broadcasting into a different organisation every five years. Public television has been stolen from us, and public radio battered almost to bits. I often wonder why New Zealanders have had to suffer so.

Johnstone laments that broadcasters themselves lacked the guts to guard public broadcasting, but then doesn’t that principle extend to the public as well?

Bill Southworth has been a television current affairs producer in New Zealand and Canada.

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