27 July 2009

Public service broadcasting in New Zealand (and why we need it)

Television

The drug of the nation

Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation…

- Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

TV Philips 21-inch

A degenerate state?

On Monday last week the NZ Herald published an opinion piece by a distinguished expat New Zealander, zoologist Ian Bayly, who had spent some time holidaying in the country of his birth recently.  After reacquainting himself with local TV Bayly felt compelled to draw attention to 'the degenerate state of TV programmes’.  His article, entitled ‘TV One descends to mind-numbing stupidity’, resulted in a swarm of follow-up criticisms from viewers over the following days, as disgruntled viewers queued up to put the boot in to TVNZ and its inability to provide quality public service broadcasting (PSB). 

Bayly criticised the endless flood of Michael Jackson news that resulted from the singer’s death in Los Angeles, needless sexploitation fare masquerading as news, and the ‘mind-numbing stupidity, frequency and duration of commercial advertisements’.  His article concluded as follows:

New Zealand excels in so many fields.  In many respects New Zealand makes a disproportionately significant contribution to the good of humanity and the elevation of the human spirit.  Why has New Zealand TV been allowed to slide into such a degenerate state?

I agree with Bayly, but perhaps a little devil’s advocacy is in order.  What does TVNZ do well?  For a start, in the wake of the commercialisation of state broadcasting in the late 1980s and particularly following the abolition of the compulsory TV licence fee by the National government in 1999, TVNZ has produced its programming on a commercial basis and returned a sizeable dividend to the Government.  Competition with TV3 has helped to encourage TV1 and TV3’s rival newsrooms to generate some vigorous and lively news journalism.  (Whether or not that’s synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘reliable’ news is debatable).  There have been some success stories in TVNZ’s programme schedules, notably the long-running consumer interest programme Fair Go* and the local soap Shortland Street.  And if viewer tastes run to lifestyle programmes like cooking programmes or home improvement shows, or American drama shows, then TVNZ offers plenty of those.

(* Featuring fellow former MA Politics student Ruwani Perera, proving that MA Pols graduates can actually get a job in the real world.)             

The problem is that these offerings don’t provide an actual alternative to the programming appearing on TV3, Prime or Sky.  Viewers certainly have a large number of programmes to choose from, but the overwhelming tendency is for networks to offer ‘more of the same’, so if ratings shows that viewers like home improvement shows then there’ll be half a dozen of those to choose from, but if viewers want programmes about history, photography, modern dance, literature, paintings, or serious discussions of important issues, then they’re probably out of luck.

While TV offers a range of commercial entertainment programmes, what’s missing in the New Zealand TV market is the other two aspects of famed BBC chairman Lord Reith’s triumvirate: public service broadcasting should ‘inform, educate and entertain’, not just the latter.  TV forms a major part of many New Zealand households’ recreation activity and acts as the focus of considerable amounts of family interaction time.  I would argue that two decades of commercial broadcasting without a public service alternative has changed New Zealand society, and the consequences of these changes are mostly negative.

Our stories

PSB helps to preserve and enhance the individualism of small, isolated societies like New Zealand.  Certainly, the cheapness and ease of availability of huge volumes of US TV programming has meant that New Zealanders have been exposed to a more cosmopolitan worldview, and are au fait with American pop culture to a great extent.  But the question remains: could the same be said about New Zealanders’ command of their own culture and heritage?  Home-grown broadcasting is always going to be more expensive than simply importing a ready-made programme from overseas.  But if those overseas programmes supplant New Zealand equivalents, and if we assume that the most prominent sources of public culture in New Zealand are the TV sets in our living rooms and elsewhere, then New Zealanders will continue to become less and less familiar with their own stories and their own history.  Maybe it’s just a sign I’m getting older, but it seems to me that the cultural references of Generation Y, the first to grow up in New Zealand without non-commercial broadcasting, are absolutely swamped by American influences.

Programmes that speak with an authentically New Zealand perspective are supported by funding from the grants agency New Zealand On Air, which does a decent job with the resources at its disposal.  But in real terms, New Zealand spends next to nothing on its public broadcasting.  A BBC report on PSB around the world noted that:

In 2000 a report commissioned by the New Zealand Television Broadcasters Council found that the amount of public money New Zealand spends on television per capita is amongst the lowest in the western world – NZ$12 in New Zealand, compared to NZ$45 in Australia and NZ$144 in the UK. While in 2000, a Canadian Report found that out of the 25 OECD countries, New Zealand was second from bottom, above the USA, in terms of public funding for public broadcasting as a percentage of GDP.   

Non-commercial news, drama, comedy and events coverage are all vital parts of the delicate art of nation-building, helping to foster a greater sense of nationhood and common identity.  Certainly, there will be some who have no concern about the lack of such programming, and who point out that the proliferation of TV channels has meant that New Zealanders have more choice when it comes to TV programming than ever before.  But this ignores the potential benefits of the numerous types of programming that mainstream New Zealand audiences are missing out on, and how these programmes can act to foster a greater sense of nationhood and unity.  

Modus operandi

It is interesting to note the tentative return of public service broadcasting to New Zealand ‘underneath the radar’ through the programming of Maori TV, the state-sponsored TV network designed to promote the use of the Maori language.  Maori TV has displayed commendable initiative in creating a body of programming that reflects contemporary Maori society and entertains its viewers.  The question remains: if Maori viewers are able to enjoy PSB, what about the rest of us? 

Granted, TVNZ made a gesture towards PSB by opening up the digital channels TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, and these networks do offer some non-commercial programming of interest, like political shows Back Benches and Media7, and book programme The Good Word.  But I wonder if 20 years of commercial broadcasting and the almost complete exclusion of the public service ethos has made it almost impossible for TVNZ to properly get its head around non-commercial programming and the idea that the maximisation of ratings and advertising revenue should not be the sole goals of state-owned broadcasters.

One slightly tongue in cheek suggestion I have to make is that TVNZ could do a lot worse than simply look to the public service model still operating at Radio New Zealand.  Its news programming is of a uniformly high standard, seldom succumbing to the hype, hysteria and out-and-out spin that overwhelm TVNZ’s news bulletin.  RNZ is not afraid to feature intelligent and in-depth discussions designed to get to the bottom of an issue rather than skate over the surface.  Its political interviews test the honesty and consistency of figures across the political spectrum.  And it even offers an entire network of that resolutely un-commercial concept, classical music!

I’m no aesthete, and I know next to nothing about classical music.  My point is that how would New Zealanders know that classical music existed if all they did was watch TVNZ?  Perhaps an annual glimpse of the Last Night of the Summer Proms from the Albert Hall?  And to take the example further, how do young New Zealanders making their way in the world of classical music, sawing away at violins or hammering away at concert pianos, know that society truly values their efforts?  Rather than, say, preferring to only celebrate the talents of boys who play rugby. 

And now, the weather

The commercialisation of TV news in New Zealand has been written about at length in the nation’s universities for years.  TVNZ shifted to a ‘Californian-style’ magazine format in which serious discussion is avoided at all costs, and complex issues are reduced to trivial soundbites.  Furthermore, TVNZ and TV3’s news bulletins are vital linchpins for the remainder of their evening schedules, so many peculiar habits are ‘locked in’ despite making little sense.  For example, both networks’ evening bulletins are 60 minutes long and start at the early hour of 6pm, despite the fact that there simply isn’t enough easily-packaged news occurring in New Zealand to fit into an unchallenging news hour.  There are already plenty of advertisements to pad out the hour, but in addition the sports and weather segments are hugely inflated, each anchoring a full ad-break to ad-break segment of the news. 

This style of coverage means that the dominant opinion-setting forum of national political debate is subject to the whims of the medium.  Any complex issue not capable of being reduced to easily-digestible soundbites is guaranteed to struggle in a world where the 5-second quote is king.  ‘Voxpops’ of passersby on Queen Street or Lambton Quay are preferred to in-depth discussions with experts that might get to the bottom of issues.  Reporters, pressed to fit stories into brief snippets of airtime, often fail to explain issues in appropriate depth, omitting some of the basics of the journalistic craft: the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how?’ questions.  They also frequently fail to provide alternative, contrary views on matters of political debate, thereby giving viewers only half the story or potentially even less when there are multiple interpretations of an issue.  And because TV is a visual medium, political debates can end up being dominated by issues of personality and presentation rather than substance if presenters are not careful. 

The strength of the PSB approach to TV news is that it provides a more trustworthy alternative to commercial news bulletins.  With the requirement to court ratings minimised or at least reduced, PSB can perform a role as the ‘conscience of the nation’, asking unpopular questions and avoiding the pack mentality that dominates much of the commercial news broadcasts.    

Looking forward

It may be drawing a long bow, but I would argue that 20 years of commercial broadcasting has changed the cultural outlook of New Zealanders.  Certainly, we are no longer as isolated as we once were, and for those who are giddy at the prospect of following celebrity gossip, there is no shortage of material in our TV news bulletins.  But as the level of public debate has increasingly been dominated by TV and the ability of politicians to manipulate its reportage, we have lost the ability to approach complex issues in a complex and nuanced way.  As the level of public discourse has become increasingly dominated by talkback radio-style outbursts, we have fallen prey to a dominant trait of New Zealanders throughout the ages: as Finlay Macdonald observed on a recent nostalgia programme on C4, ‘we are a nation of whingers and dobbers’.  So our news bulletins have become dominated by scandal-chasing and muck-raking, and if important issues cannot be reduced to simplistic soundbites then the public does not get the full story.  Of course, there are other sources of news available, particularly the print media, radio news and online journalism, each of which offers its own opportunities and drawbacks.   My main concern is that as the leading forum of political discussion, the absence of PSB-derived ethics in the presentation of TV news on TVNZ, still the most-watched news bulletin in the country, sells New Zealand short and results in an under-informed electorate.  This, alongside the corrosive cultural effects of the absence of an independent, non-commercial TV voice at the heart of New Zealand broadcasting, means that public service broadcasting is definitely needed in New Zealand: now more than ever.

Post a Comment