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MediaApril 13, 2018

An Australian TV exec tells New Zealand what is (badly) wrong with its television


Hal Crawford is the head of news at Mediaworks, owners of Three and RadioLive. He has been here for two years and still has no idea why our TV is such an absolute mess.

TV in New Zealand is odd.

It’s odd in a whole lot of great ways – Hunt for the Wilderpeople-style – but it’s also dysfunctionally weird. The biggest TV station is commercial and its only shareholder is the New Zealand government. This TV station, owned by the people of New Zealand, has no charter or set of rules that requires it to service those people in any way.

On the contrary, it’s there to make money. TVNZ inherited its infrastructure, staff, and audience – all the ingredients of its success – from various government-owned and non-profit seeking predecessors. TVNZ is underwritten by the nation. To say that the TV ad market is a level playing field is like denying the incline of Ruapehu. A government-owned commercial TV company is a big distortion in a small market.

I work for Mediaworks – its direct competitor – so this argument probably feels like a bit of a whinge. That doesn’t make it wrong. But let me move beyond that.

I moved here from Australia two years ago, and what strikes me forcefully as an outsider observing the broadcasting scene in New Zealand is how poorly the set up has served the audience.

Elsewhere in the world public broadcasters have become the champions of free speech, and bywords for quality. The BBC, the ABC, and CBC are loved and respected. Each has a slightly different model, but each has a charter or mandate. Their charters, which on first glance seem like constraints, are in fact protections and guiding lights for organisations which have been able to build audience trust over decades.

There is no public broadcaster in New Zealand making digital, radio and true TV content – no single source for all platforms. Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran identified the missed opportunity and believed that pushing RNZ into TV was the solution.

Curran may not want to go there anymore. After the Carol Hirschfeld shemozzle those three letters, RNZ, probably provoke a reflex wince in the Minister.

But the reason RNZ+ was a bad idea had nothing to do with inappropriate meetings. The proposal for the radio broadcaster to make television was an awkward work-around, and what it was working around was TVNZ.

Television is an expensive game. A bit like medical equipment, the price of broadcasting infrastructure seems to have been set in a parallel universe where the global trade miracle never happened. A single studio light will set you back $10,000. The pedestals that studio cameras sit on cost as much as some houses (as long as those houses are not in Auckland). Pack a studio full of those things, hire a few household names, and transmit the lot live, and you are talking tens of millions of dollars, literally just to keep the lights on.

To try and cut costs significantly in this world is to invite a shoddy product. If you want to feel like “real TV” and not a zero-cost, zero-cut-through Facebook Live stream, you need to invest.

TV news has particularly steep set-up costs, because you need a national network of cameras, feed points, and live networking equipment. There is also the crucial question of know-how: you need staff who know how to make TV.

All of this exists already at TVNZ.

Minister Curran said the primary obstacle to taking TVNZ1 and making it a public broadcaster was cultural – TVNZ is intractably commercial. She also said splitting up TVNZ1 and TVNZ2 was practically impossible.

That’s wrong. The prize is a broadcaster that over decades could become a national treasure, provide a deep sense of identity and continuity and be sheltered from the vicissitudes of business. The cost is… some unpleasant conversations? A bit of media heat from one TV station? All change is hard work, but this doesn’t seem nearly as hard as, say, ending fossil fuel exploration – which this government proved itself willing to do just yesterday.

Yes I am Australian. I probably shouldn’t have the temerity to tell New Zealand what to do. Yet I’m making an observation that is widely shared: by the government, the opposition, and just about everyone else who takes notice. All say publicly or privately that the current situation is a mess – yet despite that there remains, in the assets of and goodwill towards TVNZ, a unique opportunity to create a true national broadcaster.

Hal Crawford is Chief News Officer at Mediaworks

The Spinoff has a content sharing arrangement with Mediaworks and is producing a television show for the network later in 2018. However this piece was commissioned separately to that arrangement.

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