Friday's reports that Radio New Zealand might be used as the basis of a low-cost public service broadcasting television once TVNZ7's funding expires in 2012 will have been of particular interest to proponents of public service broadcasting in New Zealand. On one hand, it seems to make perfect sense to build a public service provider from the one vestige of such broadcasting remaining in the country: RNZ consistently broadcasts intelligent niche programmes that would be unlikely to survive on commercial broadcasters. Indeed, when the Government was initially considering the future of TVNZ7, a proposal to merge TVNZ7 with Radio New Zealand National and Concert to build a one-stop public service network was put forward. When this approach was not supported, and when funding for TVNZ7 was axed, things looked particularly dire for the future of non-commercial programming in New Zealand.
This new proposal, while still seemingly at the very early stages of development, holds a certain promise. Ideally the rebirth of a mass audience public service television network should have started in TVNZ's free-to-air channels, but the importance of the dividend return and the chase for ever-larger advertising slot fees has meant that TV1 and TV2 have concentrated solely on delivering audiences to advertisers, rather than the cultural and intellectual wellbeing of New Zealanders. But if TVNZ7 is not to be the ongoing bastion of public service television, then certainly a system fostered by the Radio New Zealand model of high journalistic standards and broadcasting programmes based on their merit, not necessarily on their mass appeal, is one to be investigated.
There are dangers in the practicalities. Radio New Zealand is a small but important national treasure; it knits together disparate communities in a way that commercial channels are unable to. It supports excellent in-depth journalism. Its interviews are of a consistently high quality. And it acts as a country-wide radio 'journal of record' in a nation with a long history of national broadcasting. But RNZ's long-term funding squeeze has for many years placed the organisation in the position of operating on a shoestring budget. It's particularly hard to retain good staff when they're lowly paid in the highly competitive media environment.
In addition, adding television to RNZ's remit may run the risk of spreading the resources of the organisation too thinly: it's not simply a case of making a TV show with radio personnel and simply broadcasting the audio aspect of the programme on the radio. The worst-case scenario of a badly-managed model would see the baby thrown out of the bathwater - a hybrid organisation that does neither television nor radio well. And one wonders what the employees of TVNZ7 make of this proposal - certainly, its $15m annual budget does seem quite steep, but it has many programmes that would fit right into the remit of a RNZ-based station. Will the best of TVNZ7's local programmes end up on RNZ-TV, or will everyone have to start from scratch?
But I am cautiously optimistic that some good may come of this proposal. At least it acknowledges the value of a dedicated public service organisation in an almost wholly commercialised environment in which the New Zealand national identity is seldom reflected.