A Smart Look at the Future of Television // In Collaboration With Quinnipiac University's School of Communications
There has been a recent public outcry in New Zealand (frothed ably by the news media) over the spending of broadcast funding. The announcement of the public funding of The GC, a programme being touted as New Zealand’s equivalent of Jersey Shore, alongside funding for New Zealand’s Got Talent, plus the announcement that public funds would be sought for The X Factor New Zealand, has caused a reasonable amount of consternation in some public forums, which I believe is worthy of closer inspection. However, in order to fully understand both the rationale behind the decisions and the outage that has fomented, a few points need to be clarified.
New Zealand has had a slightly odd mixed-mode model of public service broadcasting and commercial television, almost since its inception (a potted history of NZ broadcasting can be found on my blog here). Over 20 years ago, an organisation called NZ on Air was established to act as a primary funding agency for New Zealand content – the availability of cheap international content makes local content production a financially poor decision unless it is subsidised in some form. NZ on Air has several competing aims, laid out in our Broadcasting Act (sections 36 & 37 if you want to read them for yourself). It needs to fund content which reflects and develops NZ identity and culture; ensure content is available of interest to women, youth, children, persons with disabilities, and minorities; and, content which represents the diverse ethical and religious beliefs of NZ. So in other words, generally, fulfil a Public Service role which appeals to the breadth of NZ and NZ culture. So far, so normal. Not much Lord Reith would object to there.
However, where things gets tricky is in Section 39 of the above act, which covers what they need to take into account when deciding which programmes to fund. Two of the key factors are: the potential size of the audience; and, the likelihood that the programme will be broadcast. Given that by July 2012, New Zealand will have no channel which is broadcasting in a non-commercial environment, this means that any channel choosing to screen content needs to be convinced it will draw sufficient ratings to keep advertisers happy. And so we come to our Catch 22. It needs to sufficiently fulfil requirements of portraying New Zealanders, including variations in ethnicity, gender, age and religion, while still drawing a sufficient mass audience as to keep advertisers happy.
But there is another moment of context which needs to be addressed. TVNZ7 was a digital channel launched in New Zealand in 2008 to operate as a public service channel, airing without advertisements, and showing quality local current affairs, panel shows, and documentaries, as well as some purchased internationally. It was given 4 years of funding by the (then left of center) government, with the funding to be reassessed at the end of that time. Last year the (now right of center) government announced that it would no longer support funding for this channel, with the spectrum space to be given to a home shopping network, and the funding to be added to NZ on Air’s funding pool. The rationale given was that NZ on Air was best positioned to make decisions on funding the range of public service broadcasting necessary in New Zealand. Missing from this decision is any indication of who might air this content with TVNZ7 gone, and several of the shows currently airing on TVNZ7 have been told that they are unlikely to receive funding, as they are unlikely to find a broadcaster.
And so we find ourselves at a point where Public Service broadcasting is likely to disappear from New Zealand screens, with quite energetic campaigns being run in an attempt to gain TVNZ7 an eleventh hour reprieve, and simultaneously news stories are being published about several recent funding decisions for reality shows based on overseas formats.
Obviously, there are discourses of quality going on here, and I don’t personally want to enter that fray. I actually have no issue with the funding of television that is likely to be a ratings success – I think there are benefits to have programming like The X Factor New Zealand airing, and I recognise that such programming is unlikely to go ahead without some public funding, at least in the initial stages. But with NZ facing an uncertain PSB future, it has certainly brought to the fore the conflicting requirements that NZ on Air faces, and unless an avenue for PSB is found in the near future, it seems likely on which side of that conflict they are likely to err.
(I’m going to talk more about some of the race and representation issues that might be present in The GC in a forthcoming post on my personal blog)
[Image credit: NZ On Air Logo from NZ on Air]
-Contributed by Mark Stewart, -