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Remind us: why do we own TVNZ again?

It started with Stuff, was adopted with gusto by the NZ Herald, and now clickbait content is infecting 1News Now, the online news arm of TVNZ. It’s yet more proof that the state broadcaster is no different from other commercial media organisation, says Jack Close – so isn’t it time we abandoned the pretense it is?

Have you ever felt inclined to watch a video of a “Stray cat crashing a Turkish news reader’s bulletin”? Probably. Will you gain anything from it? Probably not. Then why is our state broadcaster, TVNZ, filling our newsfeeds with clickbait videos and headlines like “NYC’s feral felines fighting war on rats”?

Believe it or not, it isn’t just that 1 News really likes cats – it’s that they like money too.

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Only five years ago, clickbait was exclusive to fast-moving adverts and pop-ups on the shadier parts of the internet. Gems like “Dermatologists hate her! She is 51, looks 25! Local mum exposes shocking anti-aging secret!” were screamed at us as we frantically tried to navigate our way to the back button.

For the uninitiated, clickbait is content on the internet whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page – and while you may have managed to avoid suspect websites throughout the 2000s, you have definitely been accosted by the recent boom in clickbait content among New Zealand media.

The immediate assumption is that Stuff and the NZ Herald have lost their marbles completely, but the truth is far from that. Contrary to what the comment sections will have you believe, there isn’t a nationwide conspiracy to reduce the count of everyday New Zealander’s brain cells.

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Instead, our iconic media outlets are doing exactly what they are expected by their shareholders to do: make money. In that, they’re no different than our state-owned national broadcaster.

In mid-2011 the National Party scrapped the TVNZ charter, which governed the kind of content the broadcaster produced. The charter, implemented in 2003, obliged TVNZ to create content that “informs, entertains and educates New Zealand audiences”, as well as ensuring the participation and presence of Māori perspectives.

According to Jonathan Coleman, the broadcasting minister at the time, the Government scrapped the charter so that TVNZ could be “free to concentrate on being a successful television company”, by “pursuing commercial objectives”.

TVNZ now had a new purpose: to make money.

The TVNZ charter has its roots in the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, under which TVNZ achieved serious commercial success with dividends to the tune of $250 million paid to the crown. But by the late 1990s it was apparent that a substantial market failure was occurring: an abundance of tabloid content and a disregard for in-depth news and current affairs. Sound familiar?

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It was Aunty Helen who implemented the TVNZ charter in 2003 in recognition of these market failures, giving TVNZ two responsibilities: pay dividends to the crown and carry out public service broadcasting.

Now, in 2016, it feels like we are at the apex of commercialised media. Our public service broadcaster is not disrupting the media market like it should, by offering high quality informative, entertaining and educational content. Instead, TVNZ and its competitors are all too often reliant on tabloid-style clickbait journalism, and the losers are the New Zealand people.

Markets work wonderfully most of the time, but the competition between mass-appeal media can result in a poorer product for people. This is assuming, of course, that articles about testicles being lodged in shower stools are a poor product.

The truth is, informative, entertaining and educational content probably isn’t going to sell adverts. But why should it? We shouldn’t expect this content to generate revenue because the benefits go beyond fiscal measure: greater participation, a stronger democracy and a firm sense of citizenship.

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We accept that our taxes should pay for public education and a welfare system, yet in a time where we have record low voter turnout and high public apathy, our government wants our state broadcaster to make money.

But what is the point in the government owning a purely commercial broadcaster? Sure, it might be a great way to make money – but so are many other New Zealand industries, which doesn’t justify the government putting their fingers in those pies. There is no practical use to running TVNZ as a commercial broadcaster. If the government’s goal is to generate revenue it may be in its interest to take a business-minded approach – by selling TVNZ and looking for a more profitable venture.

New Zealand should look to the BBC, which reaches 96 percent of UK adults each week, and which operates under a charter very similar to the TVNZ one scrapped in 2011. The BBC doesn’t seek profit and doesn’t run any adverts. Its sole purpose is to inform, entertain and educate.

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It could even take notes from TVNZ’s brother, Radio NZ, which is obliged under statute to provoke debate and critical thought and to create a sense of national identity – all of which it does successfully.

On the other hand, if New Zealand wants TVNZ to be commercial, then let it be commercial. Sell it while the going is good, instead of waiting for an economic downturn or until it starts to underperform – both of which could lead to a frantic sell-off for far less than it’s worth.

But either way New Zealand needs a return to true public broadcasting. Let’s do away with dividends and advertising in the provision of public knowledge and, for the love of dermatologists, let’s do away with clickbait.

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