Time to sell TVNZ

KeallHauled

Chris Keall

A still from TVNZ's bump-and-grind promo for Heartbreak Island, starting tonight

TVNZ has gone into market overdrive for Heartbreak Island, its tits and bums reality show that begins tonight.

I don't begrudge the broadcaster running the series. Its mission, after all, is to make a profit, and homegrown reality TV is one way to achieve that.

Besides, I'm no snob. I watch a bit of reality TV. I might even have a perve at Heartbreak.

But given its hardnosed commercial programming, it's getting harder and harder to see any point keeping TVNZ in Crown hands (and certainly not the dividends, which in recent years have been paltry or zip).

The government should sell it, while it can still get a few bucks, and pursue other avenues for state broadcasting.

You could say the next step might be to funnel more money into Maori TV and broaden its appeal (a la SBS across the ditch) or to somehow merge TVNZ and RNZ into one non-commercial, multimedia platform. 

But that would be an awkward fit and, given neither National nor Labour governments for the past couple of generations have shown any interest in properly funding TVNZ as a public broadcaster (and please don't talk to me about the Deutsche Welle filler-on-high rotate TVNZ7), I don't see while they would start now. And it's just maths. New Zealand doesn't have the population to sustain an ad-free national channel. 

And besides, it already has a public broadcasting mechanism that works perfectly well – NZ on Air.

Any quality programming on TVNZ, MediaWorks channels and elsewhere is inevitably funded by the Crown agency. NZ on Air has done well recently in spreading its reach to also fund innovative small production companies and teams of expert journalists to make quality series for online (Stuff Circuit being a case in point). I'd quibble with a few of its decisions but, overall, this approach has lifted the quality of news websites. Funding specific content, rather than throwing cash at a specific media organisation, is a good, workable strategy for New Zealand. 

NZ on Air is already in for a funding boost, even if the promised $38 million a year top-up over four years (that is a $152m top-up in total), didn't quite make the budget. A Michael Stiassny-led advisory panel is now trying to work out how to divide up the extra money between Radio NZ and NZ on Air (if most or all goes to the latter, it will raise the prospect of it being spread more widely). 

The details are still being thrashed out but I like the broad paradigm of expanding NZ on Air's role.

So let's sell TVNZ to MediaWorks. Or Spark. Or someone offshore. But sell it.

One final note, if the government is going to sell TVNZ, it should do so soon. The likes of Netflix are only going to get more powerful, and US channels and content makers are going to increasingly use apps to reach global consumers directly, cutting out aggregators old (TVNZ, Sky TV) and new (Netflix, Amazon Prime etc).

There will still be a place for local media but only if it produces a lot more local content – which is always a lot more expensive than buying in overseas programming. That does not gel well with TVNZ's plan to cut costs as the rise of the internet eats into ad revenue. As a commercial proposition, the broadcaster is going to look less and less attractive.

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POSTSCRIPT: NZ Film Commission support

RNZ MediaWatch points out (from 6.50 here) that Heartbreak Island has a provisional certificate of eligibility for a New Zealand Film Commission Screen Production Grant. Productions that qualify for a Screen Production Grant get a cash grant of 40% of their production expenditure. MediaWatch points out that HeartBreak is already heavily sponsored, plus support from Film Fiji, which offers a 47% tax rebate.


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12 Comments & Questions

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Of course the Government should sell TVNZ. For one thing it has no obvious reason to run any business on our behalf; it is neither better at it than the private sector, nor is it a sensible thing to do with money that is extracted from citizens with the threat of force (even if it doesn't put money in this point is still valid, as we have to pay more tax to cover the costs of not having sold TVNZ off.

Secondly having the State run a Broadcaster is asking for trouble. There is every possibility that value will be destroyed through TVNZ becoming a propaganda arm for the Government (or, like National Radio, the propaganda arm of the Labour party due to its reliance on funding from Labour led governments).

There is zero benefit to us from having Government own TVNZ, which is also the case of most of the businesses that they also own.

But putting funding into NZ on Air is an equally stupid idea; if a programme isn't commercially viable through its viewers voluntarily paying for it (either through subscription or sitting through ads), then don't force non-viewers to pay for it.

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TVNZ is fast becoming a dinosaur. It's flagship news is views at best and left of centre at that. Perhaps that's a good reason for Labour to keep it as a SOE as the two work so hand in hand.

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And remind me again about all the BLOATED salaries....

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A question for new owners or shareholders, if it is sold off. For now, I don't think the CEO salary, or a few marquee presenters' remuneration, will make much difference either way.

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Sell off Tv2 now.
Convert Tv1 into a full public service channel, merging it with RNZ.
Put the full NZ On Air funding into that, there's no point continuing to fund tiny audiences all over the place.

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Sell the lot. TV1 is no more higher-brow 3 or Prime.

Running TVNZ as a state broadcaster would be expensive (its operational costs alone last year were $284m) and TV1 would be an awkward fit with RNZ.

RNZ is doing well as a state broadcaster and expanding into video already. Just let it be. Don't drop TV1 on its head.

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You mean the voice of the Labour Party. Never.

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The problem is for the majority of the population around election time to get an unbiased view.
Refer Australian media in the 60s 70s 80 90s when the political parties went cap in hand to the media people to get the papers and TV to support them
Murdochs and Packers

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But which state owned news organisation gives an unbiased view at the moment? Radio Red hopes for the resurrection of Marx, and TVNZ is left aligned. As we don't have an unbiased view with state owned media then why worry about selling it off and still not having an unbiased view.

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The idea is solid enough, but there's another reason governments, including the recent National government don't sell some assets... Kordia anyone? There are times when the political pain of selling an asset, or any asset, far outweighs the financial benefits.

That would probably be the case with TVNZ.

Maybe you and I don't care who owns the business, but there could be sizeable communities who do care. I'm guessing they'd be regional and older demographics, but whatever the details there will be some.

I'd further speculate this is why a National government never dared tinker with TVNZ despite being ideologically more inclined towards asset sales.

An added problem is that any likely buyer, that is an organisation that can get some economic benefit from owning a NZ TV channel will be already making TV programmes or have a substantial rights deal, many of those organisations are political dynamite.

So until the government can make an argument which appeals to the public's emotional response as well as the commercial logic, the sale will stay in the political 'too hard' basket. And yes, the value of the asset will wither.

If I was a politician (god forbid) I'd explore management buy out options or handing it over the employees. Done sensibly that might just around the objections.

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Pull some of the few good programs and shift them to a branded video/on demand Radio NZ connected channel - eg Country Calendar, Q&A, election coverage etc... Sell the rest.

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Politically a sale is not acceptable so they should go for the next best thing and asset strip it. Sell off the inner city headquarters and relegate ;them to a warehouse in the burbs like Sky!

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