Analysis: Time to sell TVNZ

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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