Every commentator and his dog is suggesting that TVNZ be split up, with TV2 retaining a commercial focus while TV1 is freed from the demands of the market to act as a pure public broadcaster a la the BBC. The neoliberal, "government has no business running a TV station" types are gunning for TV2 to become commercial-only (and eventually be sold), while the likes of Chris Trotter are more enthused about the prospect of a "nation-building" public service-oriented TV1.
This may well be a very good move, and the dual remit may indeed be unsustainable. But I don't believe that it is the real reason for TVNZ's slump in the news & current affairs ratings. In this area, the purely commercial TV3 has won viewers simply though providing a better product.
There's a persistent, and I would have thought outdated, view that the market only demands lowest common denominator trash, while quality and local content will always make a loss. That may be so if you think consumers are all morons, and "nation-building" has to mean documentaries about tuataras. But TV3's CanWest stablemate C4 has done a fantastic amount to expose and promote NZ music, developed local presenting talent, and met the needs of a range of niche markets, all while paying its way through the innovative use of text voting.
Over on TV3, take a look at the way the channel presents its delayed free-to-air rugby coverage. With so many people having Sky, this could easily be a lame duck. But presenters Oscar Kightley and Nathan Rawere provide a preview and highlights package which is funny, irreverent and popular. Would stuffy TV1 have thought of getting a gay Polynesian comedian to front the rugby, celebrating and at the same time gently deflating some of the the pomposity of our mythic national sport? I can't imagine a much more nation-building exercise than that.
The news section offers simple, straight-ahead presentation, thankfully free from the eyebrow-twitching frippery of TV1, plus some striking weather graphics.
TVNZ's real problem is an entrenched sense of entitlement and a lack of imagination, innovation and capacity for renewal. It shares the tendency of ex-state monopolies to combine corporate excess with stifling hierarchies and the inertia of bureaucracy. Unlike a real private company, it's never had to fight for and win its market share.
It's also guilty of believing its own myths. Befuddled by endless womens' magazine covers, its management actually seems to have believed that Paul Holmes was a genius and Judy Bailey was the (rather creepy-sounding) "mother of the nation". Meanwhile, those of us who loathed Holmes' insulting style from the beginning, and didn't want any bloody autocue-reader for a mother, have been gradually joined by more and more people who've weaned themselves off their inherited tendency to go straight to the TVNZ channels.
But some, including the likes of Trotter still don't understand that this is what has happened. In his Independent article, Trotter opines:
"The inerrant democracy of the ratings system also requires TVNZ to assemble a galaxy of TV "stars." The Susan Wood, Kate Hawkesby, Paul Henry, Kay Gregory, Wendy Petrie and Simon Dallow "brands" contribute to building viewer loyalty and play a key role in keeping the most lucrative audiences away from TVNZ's competitors.
For politicians and TVNZ board members to complain about the quantum of these presenters' salaries betrays a woeful ignorance not only of their function but also of their huge commercial value."
Wrong. This was the rationale repeatedly wheeled out to explain why the annoying "personalities" foisted on the country were being paid three times the Prime Minister's salary. But surely, the lie to that was given by the experience of Holmes, who took his "magnetic personality" to Prime, where he won all of 1% of the audience.
As many of us had sworn through gritted teeth all along, it wasn't the personality which brought the audience and the advertisers, it was the timeslot. The TVNZ audience was inherited; for previous generations it was the only thing on, and, given reception issues, for some people still is.
The criticisms of "star" salaries by the public and politicians were less tall poppy-bashing resentment that anyone should get paid that amount, than disbelief that they were really justified on commercial grounds. And in fact, TVNZ hasn't been "keeping the most lucrative audiences away from [its] competitors", but haemorraghing them at an increasing rate.
A real example of a presenter winning an audience is John Campbell on TV3. Though this is the second time I've made complimentary mention of him on this blog, don't mistake me for his No1 cheerleader. Like Holmes, Campbell has his tics and foibles which annoy or attract according to taste. But his outstanding quality is that he generally treats his topics with intelligence, and both his viewers and interviewees with respect.
John Campbell did win permanent admiration from this viewer a few weeks ago when, in a piece on teenage drinking, he took the unprecedented step of actually asking some teenagers what they thought. The devilish cleverness--to hit upon the fact that people who aren't included by the first-person plural pronoun in phrases like "our kids" and "our properties", also watch TV.
I understand that with the funding available for public service objectives over the last several years, TVNZ has been able to commission and broadcast a number of locally-made dramas and documentaries, some of which are suposed to be quite strong. It's hard to say, since the majority have been buried away in odd, inaccessible timeslots.
If TVNZ had been daring enough to put even one or two of these new local programmes in prime time, they might have some genuine grounds for pointing to the stresses of a dual remit and conflicting objectives. As it stands, the real problem is that they are doing both jobs badly.
Categories: TVNZ, New Zealand, TV3, Media