I'm amused at those who chose to hold a "mock funeral" for a little watched state TV channel (TVNZ7) on the basis that without it New Zealand TV would be completely braindead. As if equating the closure of a TV channel with "death" isn't itself rather childish and unbalanced. Indeed, quoting the 1.6 million cumulative viewing figure as being meaningful is also rather braindead. All it means is that at some point, 1.6 million people had the channel on for at least five minutes. At no point has TVNZ7 had viewing figures representing 1% of all people watching TV at any one point.
Where were the handful of people who give a damn been? New Zealand television has been braindead for nigh on 25 years, it all started when then TVNZ CEO Julian Mounter prepared an all out attack against the upcoming TV3, by focusing on adventure, entertainment and by dumbing down national news and current affairs into a simple binary "good vs bad", "us vs them" format. Lindsay Perigo said so himself not long afterwards. The focus was on growing the news audience to include the vast bulk of people whose main interest in news is the sport, celebrity "news", disaster and crime stories (so easy to make it a story of victims against adversity) and then some cute kid, animal or quirky piece at the end.
TVNZ7 did not challenge that, it was TVNZ news lite, and had a handful of local programmes with certain high profile commentators who would host debates. However, viewing figures were abysmal and the standards although higher than TVNZ could hardly be said to have been at the cutting edge of intelligent debate. It didn't present a wide range of incisive opinions with in depth analysis. National Radio with Pictures it was not (if that is the standard its acolytes were aiming for, though it isn't mine).
However, why the fuss over this channel?
Regional channels did make attempts to have more uplifting TV. Triangle has done so (excluding Martyn Bradbury) as has CTV over some years, yet the demise of Stratos from nationwide coverage caused far less fuss. However, it is possible to see more current affairs on free to air TV now than it was 20 years ago, given both TV3 and TVNZ have Sunday morning shows that they did not previously have.
Yet I wont pretend this amounts to anything of particular note. The reason is simple; regardless of what politicians, pundits, bloggers and journalists think, most people most of the time do not turn on television wanting intellectual stimulus and debate. Television is an entertainment medium.
Most people, most of the time, don't want the sort of television that the public television advocates want to push. After all, the Australian ABC has long had audience levels well below that of the big three commercial network oligopoly. The BBC's highest rating shows are indistinguishable from what is on commercial television (talent shows, sit-coms, soaps and sport).
Yet it's not hard to understand the disdain many hold against most TV in NZ, especially given the dominant free to air broadcaster is state-owned. The bigger question is the chicken and egg one. Did TVNZ result from a braindead culture of whim worshipping entertainment driven airheads, or is TVNZ in fact part of the problem? (take for granted that TV3 has essentially gone along with it)
I'd argue that TVNZ follows the culture (it wouldn't be a roaring success if it didn't tap into it), but that it also reinforces it. Not challenging it, not extending people, not trying to go a step above the audience. Not uplifting, but in fact embracing and celebrating the "average mediocrity" of "everyday kiwis". Their interests, their understanding of the world, even how they talk is just replicated by TVNZ, or even lowered. In fact, my favourite braindead TVNZ moment was in 2000, when a TVNZ "journalist" said the "people of Pyongyang took a day off work to welcome the south Korean President", when Kim Dae Jung undertook his historic visit of north Korea. Braindead indeed.
This airhead culture predates TVNZ, and is now seen in the regular political discourse of many commentators. It is seen in the hysterical hyperboles seen lately about part-privatisation, the anti-scientific scaremongering about anything nuclear or anything to do with genetic engineering. Complex ideas, issues that have more than two perspectives and anything that needs plenty of time to explain doesn't work well on TV after all.
The whole issue about the airhead culture is big in itself, and it's the height of hypocrisy for some of those who embrace shallow, sound bite culture and participate in it, to think that a small TV channel that doesn't challenge any of it is the way to deal with it. The same people who think paying teachers based on performance is wrong think somehow they are well placed to judge the performance of broadcasters catering to the people those teachers helped churn out.
Yet is there a case to say intelligent TV can help? Arguably yes.
Of course, intelligent TV is widely available and seen throughout NZ. It's called Sky.
Sky brought New Zealand 24-hour news in the form of CNN, and more recently multiple options ranging from the BBC, Sky News, France 24, Fox News, CCTV and the new channel for nutty conspiracy theorists who are anti-American - Russia Today. New Zealanders have never had better access to news about Australia, the USA, UK, Europe, the Arab world, China and Russia. It also brought multiple dedicated channels for documentaries and then classic movies, arthouse movies and well as the mass market entertainment channels it supplies.
Sky started by paying the government for its first network, a series of UHF frequencies, installed its own transmitters and bought content. It spent the first seven or eight years losing money, and now gets into around half of New Zealand homes. People who are prepared to pay for the content it provides, which is not just sport, not just movies, but far more content than state TV can ever provide. Now we all know Sky succeeds because of sports coverage, but nobody would have predicted what it now brings, thanks to an open market, absence of foreign ownership restrictions and absence of local content quotas. It isn't just because of the poor standards on other channels, because pay TV thrives in the UK, which has seven state owned national non-commercial TV channels (and which heavily regulates three commercial ones to provide "public service content").
Yet that isn't the point according to public TV advocates. Indeed, they don't like Sky very much at all. The Listener, once the state owned magazine with a statutory monopoly on TV listings, has already published an article rallying an unsurprising set of arguments about Sky - with it being foreign owned, owned by News Corp (the "devil incarnate" to much of the left), owning the rights to much compelling TV content, and allegations this is "unfair" against a state owned broadcaster that has existed for over 50 years, 29 years of which was in a monopoly position.
What isn't braindead about embracing such shallow, xenophobic, anti-big business attitudes?
You see, the Save TVNZ7 club have moved away from this now, as Clare Curran intimated on Twitter saying:
A successful business, which has brought far more choice and intelligence to NZ television that any other broadcaster, is now in the firing line from one of those who asserted that she is against braindead TV.
I'd have more sympathy if those who wanted to Save TVNZ7 had raised money to set up their own TV channel - which of course you can in New Zealand, given that there are no legal barriers to entry and there is a surplus of digital TV frequencies available on Freeview. It is a matter of money.
The problem is that the Save TVNZ7 people don't want to put their money where their mouths are, they want to make everyone do it. So when the investors in Sky, have put their money in, have done so with no taxpayer subsidy at all, have been supported by around half of the adult population in subscriptions, you might wonder why they don't like that very much.
I'm resigned to free to air TV in NZ being braindead, because it's what most people want most of the time. There is better on Sky and some regional broadcasters. There is more online and that is where the media is heading.
I don't trust politicians to bring me better broadcasting, because I don't trust them to buy me food, clothing or buy me healthcare or a pension. Those who want better should support what is there now and if so inclined, make their own content. It is remarkably cheap to do so given digital technology (none of which came from public broadcasters).
The coming years will continue the profound revolution in media that has been going on for the last 20 years, a revolution that is challenging existing free to air broadcasters and newspapers. The ability to access content from all over the world and publish your own content is transforming media, discourse, journalism and starting to affect politics.
That is where the future is - not a small state owned TV channel, nor in considering ways to regulate one of the country's most successful broadcasters (particularly when just about any way that a government might consider regulating it will breach the country's WTO commitments on audio-visual services).
UPDATE: Mark Hubbard has also written well on this.
UPDATE: Mark Hubbard has also written well on this.