What Agenda Now For TVNZ?

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.