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Reinventing public broadcasting: Panel debates the future of TVNZ

Reinventing public broadcasting: Panel debates the future of TVNZ

Russell BrownThe discontinuation of funding for TVNZ7 and Parliament’s recent decision to scrap the TVNZ charter have raised concerns about the government’s future commitment to public broadcasting. This was the focus of the fourth and final session of the Unitec Forum for the Future 2011: Reinventing Public Broadcasting, which was held at the Unitec Theatre last Thursday.

The session was hosted by Unitec’s Department of Communication Studies and facilitated by business commentator and journalist Rod Oram. Panelists included CEO of South Pacific Pictures John Barnett; media commentator and television presenter Russell Brown; broadcast manager of community access radio Planet FM, Terri Byrne; Triangle and Stratos TV interviewer David Beatson, whose long career in the media has included roles such as editor of the Listener, TVNZ current affairs presenter and chairman of NZ on Air; and senior lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University and broadcasting researcher, Dr Peter Thompson.

The lively 90-minute panel-style debate – held in front of a live and online audience – was buzzing with those feeling aggrieved that TVNZ7 was going. Many were bristling at the suggestion New Zealand can’t afford a public broadcasting channel and our best option with the funds available is to put cameras into the Radio NZ National studio and broadcast this content on TV.

Rod Oram first introduced panel members by asking them to describe their highs and lows of public broadcasting in New Zealand.

Russell Brown was remembered as the first blogger to win a Qantas media award, thus establishing blogging as worthy of awards in journalism. Peter Thompson only emigrated to NZ in 1997 and said his first low was watching the 6pm news for the first time. Having come from the UK, he couldn’t believe how parochial, trivial and thin on analysis it was. But he said: “I’m sure it was high quality in terms of generating profits.”

Terri Byrne said a recent high for her was to have 250 applicants for a job at Planet FM from young graduates looking for postings in media that ‘have meaning’. Another high was when three former Romanian broadcasters got together and started a weekly one-hour radio show on Planet FM, which ended up bringing the whole Romanian community together for the first time in Auckland.

David Beatson said his low was that as New Zealand approaches the most significant change in its broadcasting history (the switch of the entire broadcasting system from analogue to digital) there has been no discussion or debate happening around the purpose of public broadcasting or any commitment to its future. He said all broadcasters know that we have to live with the times and to keep up. But Beatson believes the government’s response of just putting everything on FREEZE (i.e. the budget of NZ on Air and the budget of Radio NZ), with no thought to the future, is hugely short-sighted.

Beatson believes for TVNZ6 and 7, which he called "$79 million experiments at the expense of tax-payers", to be canned with no analysis of what these public broadcasting channels achieved, is a scandal! He was shocked that the channels were touted as being self-funding – yet the channels had no advertising and no attempt was ever made to get sponsorship for programming. Beatson said he was astounded that such a thing could ever have happened at such a huge cost to the NZ taxpayer and he couldn’t believe there weren’t any young people calling the decision-makers to task over this. He also called for a post-mortem on the experiments of the TVNZ charter and TVNZ6 and 7.

An audience member said as a parent, TVNZ6’s Kidzone was a high – he was very happy to put his kids in front of TVNZ6 so it was a low point to see this disappear and become the commercial youth channel U.

At this stage, tweets from the online audience were read out.

DesignertechNZ tweeted: If those respected in public broadcasting can make the change to new media then they bring with them their integrity + standards.

Tombutlin tweeted: Community building … via access public radio – nice aim but social media/clubs/meetings achieve the same.”

Cathy Aronson tweeted: Community radio doesn’t have an editorial policy, social media won’t save spoken language.

Russell Brown responded to this tweet by agreeing that the spoken word is important – he said broadcaster SBS in Australia has a massive website which has all its programming on demand in multiple languages and is a great example of a broadcaster using the internet and working with it.

Economics NZ – Designertech NZ then tweeted: On demand television?

Russell Brown replied, saying the American model for on demand does work but we may not have the population to sustain it. "It’s called Public Radio Exchange – and it’s been hugely successful in the United States. This is where 445 low level grass roots community stations put all their material online, and as long as it fits the non-commercial test it can go into the pool and be re-broadcast on any of the channels or online on demand."

An email from Hugh Wilson was read out asking Peter Thompson if he was willing to pay twice as much tax just to have a public broadcasting TV channel.

Thompson answered that he wouldn’t need to double his tax, that all it would take to keep funding TVNZ7 is $16 million a year – which is 1c per person per day, so a cup of coffee a year per person. If we are committed to having public broadcasting, he said, then it’s easily affordable. Thompson went on to argue his point, saying that  in the same week that the government announced it was canning TVNZ7, it was looking to bail out AMP by Insurance by $100 million.

David Beatson said perhaps what's needed is to provide for public broadcasting under law. He said he was once asked what was the return on investment was for NZ on Air – and why didn’t they have money left over at the end of the financial year?

“Why would we when we were tasked with spending our budget on providing funding for local content? Public broadcasting services have a social mission that is above and beyond commercial and that needs to be protected!"

He said it was impossible to build social cohesion and an integrated community without public broadcasting.

"We need to air our grievances and public broadcasters give us the place to do this."

The question was posed: Is it worth waiting for another government to ensure that we have public broadcasting services?

John Barnett agreed. “Don’t wait, we need to make the moves ourselves. If we wait around for the perfect solution, it won’t happen. We have to put up our hands and say this is how we want to do it. When dealing with the government it’s what you ask for that makes the difference. The less you ask for the more likely they are to say yes!"

Terri Byrne believes we don’t need to wait for government. Through new media, people are creating content and taking the lead. She said in future it will be possible to bypass all the egos of traditional media producers and editors – something seen with the Arab uprising, where people have broken through and gotten their message out in countries with centralised controlled broadcasting.

Citizen journalism has its place, according to Thompson, but it’s not a complete substitute for traditional journalism. When replacing impartial observations for an individual’s actual experience, you get authenticity – but do you get accuracy?

Beatson argued that we need a public broadcaster or we won’t get local content – and our voice will get lost in the jungle of the new media landscape. "One of the principles of public broadcasting is universal access and we’re about to lose it with the switch to digital as digital terrestrial channels are only in 15 percent of NZ homes."  He believes the regions need to start talking to the nation on broadband or one digital channel that reaches everyone.

Oram then asked John Barnett to speak about his proposal to start filming and broadcasting at the Radio NZ studios.

Barnett said about 12 hours of national television would come out of the radio studio. "You screen interviews from Morning Report, Nine to Noon, Checkpoint, and you give every Radio NZ reporter an iPod and an iPhone, so they can get video when they are out doing a story. You have a news update crawler along the bottom of the screen and news and weather headlines. For $1 million you could very quickly link the people who were talking with pictures."

He envisioned a bank of TVNZ7-type programmes and programming from other public broadcasters with news and current affairs at its core. "It would invigorate Radio NZ … no one from government appears on Radio NZ anymore. If there were pictures they would show up … we could do it a cost of about $4 million  from government, and with other ways of raising funds, we think we could produce this channel."

Oram said: "Kathryn Ryan looks nice but the studio doesn’t, so how does it work?"

Barnett replied: "You set up three cameras in the studio and cut between the shots … remember, what people are interested in is content."

Brown pointed out that Glenn Williams from Kiwi FM is already doing this, and someone should give him a job. Williams, who was sitting beside me in the audience, said what he did on his Kiwi FM breakfast show was pretty basic, and he liked the idea of doing the same thing at Radio NZ.

"I put a webcam on interviewees … it doesn’t take much to do it. What we’ve been doing is value added – you make sure that the content is different, but essentially it’s taking what’s already there."

Audience member Todd Niall from Radio NZ, however, said the station's most recent survey showed that around the clock it has the biggest audience of any station in the country. Staffers are concerned about the idea and don’t want to have Radio NZ ruined by the TV thing.

When Rod Oram had to call the discussion to a close, everyone in the audience felt it had only just begun and there was still much more to discuss. Oram called for the audience and the wider community to now consider the future of public broadcasting in New Zealand. He said it was clear this needed to be in a medium that includes both television and radio.

He wrapped things up with the announcement that Peter Thompson and David Beatson have started a public media foundation – essentially driving a continued and sustained commitment to public broadcasting in this country – which interested parties can sign up to by emailing davidcbeatson@xtra.co.nz or peter.thomson@vuw.ac.nz.

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