• Public Television

    Around the turn of the century, I had the privilege and pleasure of serving on the board of Television New Zealand for a period of about ten years. I enjoyed the experience enormously and welcomed the chance to make my small contribution to the state of television in this country.

    Television was not exactly an unknown world to me. As an MP in Britain, I had been interviewed often for British news and current affairs programmes. And I had, while out of the House of Commons for a period, had some experience on the other side of the camera, when I was employed for a few years as a presenter and reporter on a top-rated and nationally networked weekly current affairs programme.

    During the time that I was on the board, TVNZ was faced with growing commercial competition from Sky Television and with the emerging threat, and competition for advertising dollars, from the internet. It was able, however, to gain some competitive advantage through its role as the national broadcaster – and it operated in terms of a Charter which spelt out its particular responsibilities and opportunities in this capacity.

    The Charter required TVNZ to go beyond the purely commercial; it was still required to produce an annual dividend for its government shareholder, but it was expected to act more like a mini-BBC than would have been the case for a purely commercial operation. Our excellent Chief Executive at that time, Rick Ellis, would proclaim from time to time that the Charter was “in our DNA”.

    All that changed, however, with the election of a new National government in 2008. The Charter was scrapped and TVNZ was required then to maximise profits like any other commercial enterprise, which meant that they could show only those programmes that would attract the advertising dollar. The concept of “public” television was lost.

    This is not to say that TV does not today do a very creditable job with its news, political and current affairs programmes. But those programmes do not cover the full ambit of what would normally be regarded as “public” television.

    Public television would normally be expected to deliver a thoughtful treatment of issues of wide public concern – issues like climate change, the quality of our water, New Zealand’s place in the world, social issues like poverty, homelessness and inequality, hot topics in economic and trade policy, health issues such as mental health and suicide, our constitutional arrangements, and so on.

    Despite the efforts of socially aware programme-makers such as Bryan Bruce, issues such as these scarcely receive the attention they need and deserve; the national debate is the poorer for their neglect.

    The good news, however, is that “public” television is back on the agenda, courtesy of none other than Bryan Bruce himself. Bryan has established a new website, called New Zealand Public Television. The new site, which anyone can access for nothing at www.nzptv.org.nz, has a dual purpose.

    First, it identifies programmes, from both New Zealand and around the world, that explore issues of interest to New Zealanders, whether living here or overseas, and makes them available to a Kiwi viewership. The site, although primarily provided for a domestic audience, will undoubtedly be of great value to ex-pat Kiwis and to those on holiday or living overseas who may miss programmes about issues that are making waves at home.

    Secondly, it offers a platform to programme producers with excellent ideas for compelling programmes that would not ordinarily appeal as commercially viable to television companies. Because the new site is now visited by sufficient numbers, it is funded by New Zealand on Air, and New Zealand Public Television can therefore find funding that will allow a good programme idea on a serious topic to get off the ground; programmes will be made that would not otherwise have been made.

    Those interested – as both programme makers and viewers – in television programmes that go beyond the normal commercial diet (which I won’t attempt – as a concession to popular taste – to define further) now have somewhere to go. New Zealand Public Television promises to lift the level of debate on those topics that matter so greatly to so many of us.

    Bryan Gould
    9 December 2018