Wherefore Art Thou Public Service Content Provider?

10 November 2016

New Zealand On Air’s recent announcement of changes to its funding strategy and to a lesser extent the mooted desire of TVNZ to take over Freeview have brought discussion of public service broadcasting once again to the fore.

Public service broadcasting has had a chequered history since 1989 with both the Labour and National Parties ensuring Television New Zealand’s ability to operate as a commercial public broadcaster.

The doing away of the charter in 2008 by National let loose the commercial beasts at TVNZ forever and public service content has diminished significantly as a result.

NZ On Air was set up to ensure a broad range of NZ content on screen. While they have fought their fight, they do not control the broadcast platforms that operate at the behest of advertisers. Consequently, it is difficult to get a broad range of public service content screened because broadcasters shoot for the lowest common denominator and are unwilling to take creative risks in case they affect advertising revenue.

Now NZ on Air is proposing a new funding strategy that essentially expands the content gatekeeping from the commercially-driven broadcasters to include the commercially-driven online platforms, the likes of NZME and Fairfax Media.

Some look to Radio New Zealand as the great online hope. But like NZ on Air, Radio NZ hasn’t had an increase in funding for the last eight years. Yes, they have developed the Wireless, revamped their website and are now generating screen content with the filming and broadcasting/streaming of Checkpoint. They’re also engaging in providing independently produced digital content with a platform as they did with Christchurch Dilemmas. It’s likely that they’ll start commissioning more independently produced content. But they can’t compete with the media giants of the world in the online space without a lot more funding.

Could Radio NZ be the home for public service TV? Unlikely. Funding issues aside, the shelf life of linear TV is up for debate and the infrastructure costs are high. Without deep pockets, nobody wants to take on the voracious content beast that is a linear TV channel, which has to chew up and spit out content non-stop. Viceland, a new TV channel from digital hipster Vice Media and partners A & E in the U.S. and Rogers Media in Canada illustrates what’s needed for a linear channel start-up: distinctive content, lots of it, and piles of money to make it or buy it and play it out.

It’s clear that a lot of people still watch linear TV as NZ On Air’s recent Audience Report showed. It also identified the significant increase in online services, particularly SVOD, such as Lightbox and Netflix. This trend is reflected internationally as well.

David Abraham, Chief Executive of Channel 4 in the UK, claimed that the future of TV lies “not with either linear or on-demand, but a creative and visual integration of the two worlds, blending the strengths of both into a single brand.”

NZ On Air’s refocusing of its funding strategy is necessary in light of the impact of the digital world. But it doesn’t address the real issue that lies at the heart of screen content delivery in New Zealand—When TVNZ 7 was shut down by the National government, we lost what potentially could have been our non-commercial, public service content TV broadcaster. And now with the growth of digital content providers looking to satisfy the need of content consumers after whatever they want, whenever they want it on multiple screens, we don’t have a non-commercial, public service online platform to guard against the total commercialization of content in that space.

With our current business-driven government, what we need is a bright spark or two to put a convincing case forward that meets the need of public service content on TV and online and the government’s desire for a return on investment that’s attractive–not necessarily a monetary one.

Until we get a public service content provider fit for the digital age, we are going to continue to wince and grimace our way through the majority of what’s on offer just like we’ve done with the US election coverage.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director