21 May – Public meeting: TVNZ7 gets the big tick!
21 May – Public meeting: TVNZ7 gets the big tick!
400+ People pack Wesley Church Hall tonight!
A chilly Monday night in downtown Wellington, and people were steadily filing in, to fill a reasonably sized hall in Taranaki Street’s Wesley Church Hall,
The Goodnight Kiwi was on hand to greet people, as they filed into the hall,
Within another half hour, and the hall was full, with people standing around the walls, in the doorway, and out into the foyer.
The crowd numbered 400+ and seemed to represent a wide spectrum middle New Zealand, young and old,
Completing a panormaic view of the packed hall, which kept filling even as the guest speakers were addressing the audience,
Note: From this point onward, a fault in my camera results in a degraded image-quality.
Soon after 7pm, Wellington Central MP and deputy leader of the Labour Party, Grant Robertson opened the meeting; welcomed the audience; and introduced the guest speakers; moderator, Wallace Chapman (broadcaster); Clare Curran (Labour spokesperson on Broadcasting); Sue Kedgley (ex Green MP); Dr Peter Thompson (Victoria University, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies ); and Tom Frewen (Journalist & Media Commentator),
Wallace Chapman is better known in his role as host for TVNZ7′s popular “Backbenches” – though Robertson was at pains to point out to the audience that Chapman was present in a personal capacity only, and not as a representative for TVNZ7 or any other body.
Wallace Chapman welcomed the audience and commented that no public service TV channel was immune from political interfence, whether the BBC and Radio New Zealand. He said that TVNZ7 and its’ supporters were often dismissed by critics as supporting “minority viewing”. Chapman said that 1.4 million viewers per month was not minority viewing, and quoted Noam Chomsky regarding minorities.
Chapman then read out a selection of letters and emails from people who supported TVNZ7. He quoted one young viewer who said,
” I don’t feel left out of society with TVNZ7. I feel included.”
Chapman then introduced Labour’s spokesperson on Broadcasting, Clare Curran.
Ms Curran began by asking the audience,
“Who remembers ‘Goodnight Kiwi’?”
A sea of arms shot up – probably 99% of the audience raised their arms.
Ms Curran said that ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ was out in the foyer (see photo above) and the costume was the same that had been used by TV2 in it’s public promotion of itself.
She then asked,
“Who remembers Fred Dagg?”
Perhaps not as many hands went up this time, but still the vast majority indicated that they knew the name.
Ms Curran explained that the actor who played the popular ‘Fred Dagg’ character, John Clarke, was a well -known comedian and satirist on Australian TV. Clarke did short, satirical skits each evening on Australia’s public channel, lampooning some aspect of politics in Australian society.
“We need ‘Backbenches’ to take the piss out of politicians.”
Curran said that ‘Backbenches’ was the only show on television that took a light-hearted, often satirical view of politicansm and this would be lost when TVNZ7 was closed down. She added that “we have already lost TVNZ6 and government was about to lose TVNZ7“.
She reminded the audience that Australia’s government invested $912 million on their public service ABC and SBS channels.
By comparison, TVNZ7 cost New Zealand only $16 million.
Ms Curran then asked the audience,
“ Remember what happened when they threatened to take the bird call off Radio New Zealand? “
She said that public outrage had stopped that from happening and we needed the same to happen to stop politicians from pulling the plug on TVNZ7. Ms Curran added that we needed a proper debate on public broadcasting in this country. Curran said that it was government that was killing TVNZ7, just as it had frozen all funding for Radio NZ and had not increased its’ budget for the last three years.
Ms Curran added that this was the same government that had appointed National Party functionary, Stephen McElrea, to NZ on Air’s Board of Directors. McElrea is John Key’s electorate secretary. She said NZ on Air was now funding commercial tv projects such as “The GC”, and added,
” Labour believes that public TV is essential and it must be resurrected if TVNZ7 is killed off. When we get a Labour-led government soon, let’s put it in[public TV] place. Let’s make a decision now that we do value public TV. “
Ms Curran said that all other Opposition parties were supporting this issue and not just the Labour Party. She said,
” We think Peter Dunne supports public TV.
Today Grey Power issued a media release supporting retention of TVNZ7 and were appalled at it’s [impending] closure. “
Ms Curran then read out a few emails she had received, supporting TVNZ7,
” It was inexpensive. “
” In its’ absence, we’ll just get more junkfood telly. “
” TVNZ7 is an incubator of ideas. “
Ms Curran then concluded her talk with a passionate plea,
” This is an opprtunity for us to get mad and get involved. We must fight to keep it. And if it’s killed off, we must bring it back. “
Wallace Chapman then introduced the next speaker, ex-Green MP, Sue Kedgely,
Ms Kedgley went straight for the government’s “jugular”, stating that it was fatuous that National can’t find $16 million to fund TVNZ7 when other countries can afford public TV. She said that even Russia could afford public TV.
Ms Kedgeley suggested that if government was so cash-strapped that there were options to raise money to fund TVNZ7. She suggested,
- Funding TVNZ7 from a levy on Sky TV. Sky TV already pays to have TVNZ channels Kidzone and Heartland on their channels.
- Sell off spare spectrum and use a $200 million windfall for public TV.
She said there were many other options but the reason National wasn’t exploring them was,
” National doesn’t believe in public TV because it’s outside the ‘market’. “
Ms Kedgeley was adamant that it was important that some broadcasters, “were not beholding to corporations and could ask the hard questions.”
She suggested that National was keen to get rid of TVNZ7 because of a perceived “left wing perspective”, and said,
” We have the most de-regulated media in the world. There’s no regulation for local content. No controls on cross-ownership. No rules around pay-TV at all. “
Ms Kedgeley said that as corporations were buying up our print and electronic media, that there were fewer and fewer independent sources of news other than the internet. There was nothing to stop Rupert Murdoch from buying other TV channels in this country and he could buy TVNZ if the government decided to sell it if they’re re-elected in 2014.
She said there would be less and less current affairs on TV if TVNZ7 was closed down. Ms Kedgeley referred to current affairs programmes on TV1 and TV3 being relegated to Sunday mornings and contrasted that with current affairs shows broadcast on TVNZ7 during prime-time .
Ms Kedgeley added that if we lose public TV, “our children will grow up learning more about Los Angeles than our own communities“. She decried the situation that it seemed that TVNZ’s “main growth area was making TV channels for Sky’s pay-tv business“.
She told the audience that the previous broadcasting minister, Jonathan Coleman, had once said,
“New Zealanders don’t give a toss about public service TV. “
Ms Kedgeley replied, “How wrong he is! “
“ So what can we do? ” Ms Kedgeley asked,
” We can mobilise to support TVNZ7!
We can support Clare’s Private Member’s Bill promoting public TV!
But we may have to wait for the next Labour-led government to set up a new public TV. I think this is the beginning of grass-roots public support for public TV. “
As Ms Kedgeley spoke, this blogger noticed more and more people entering the hall. There was standing room only,
Next to speak was radio journalist and commentator, Tom Frewen. Mr Frewen has hosted the excellent ‘Focus on Politics‘ on Radio NZ and is possibly one of the finest investigative journalists and commentators we have in this country.
Mr Frewen started of with a challenging statement to the audience,
” I come not to save TVNZ7, I come to bury it.”
He added that if this meeting was being held in Invercargill or Christchurch, tv cameras from local television stations would be present to report the event. Mr Frewen said that a lack of television cameras was noticeable because Wellington had no regional public TV, and other networks were not interested in reporting this event.
He said that he was under no illusion that TVNZ7 would not be saved by this government, or by TVNZ,
” We can’t have it unless politicians want to spend money on it. Labour and the Greens will have to break with the idea that TVNZ will support public TV. It will not. “
On a lighter note, Mr Frewen that he did not like calling it TVNZ7,
“It should be ‘One’.”
There was clapping from the audience at that simple statement.
Mr Frewen remarked on how bad our commercialised TV had become in the last 20 years. He said that it is up to politicians to sort this out,
“We can’t have public meetings every month. I’m mad as hell, but there’s no point in being angry. I want you [pointing at politicians seated at guests table] to fix it“.
He also called for an investigation by the Auditor-General regarding NZ on Air’s funding for “The GC”. Mr Frewen wanted to know why funding was going to a Dutch production company. He suspected that NZ on Air had been “taken for a ride“.
Mr Frewen said he wanted a proper public discussion on this issue and wanted a framework of public TV presented to the public, to determine if people liked a proposal.
His final comment was short and succinct,
“And that’s it.”
The next speaker to be introduced was Dr Peter Thompson, a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University,
Dr Peter Thompson
Dr Thompson accompanied his talk with a power-point presentation that summarised his comments point-by-point.
He began by stating that it was a like wishing for a ‘digital tooth fairy’ to assume that once TVNZ7 is “buried”, then public-interest programmes would be broadcast elsewhere. He cited the ghettoisation of current affairs programmes (‘Q+A‘,’ Think Tank ‘, ‘The Nation‘, etc) on Sunday mornings, instead of prime-time viewing. He said that the lack of funding for TVNZ7 was a purely political decision by National, and nothing else.
Dr Thompson said that despite appearances, government does not “speak with one voice”. He said that government departments have different priorities and do not always want the same thing. He said Cabinet had looked at TVNZ7 but that it did not meet their criteria to be “fiscally neutral”, so handed it back to TVNZ.
Dr Thompson said that eventually we could have a situation where people could have any channel, as long as it was Sky. He added,
” But viewers can only choose what they watch if it’s available. “
He added that free-to-air commercial TV isn’t free,
” You pay for it through the ads you see on TV. The cost of those ads is part of the stuff you buy.”
Dr Thompson then broke his talk down into three broad areas,
He said that the cost of Sky for subscribers was approximately $1 per day.
He contrasted that with the cost of TVNZ7 to taxpayers – 1 cent per day.
Every household could pay $10 per year to fund and save TVNZ7.
2. Re-reregulate Sky and pay-TV.
3. A levy on Pay TV.
Dr Thompson offered several funding models that would pay for TVNZ7. These ranged from a small levy of pay TV, telcos, and internet providers, to other options such as subscriptions to public TV. He said subscriptions might work for public TV, but not public radio.
He suggested another option of returning to a form of TV licensing.
Dr Thompson said that it was a right of citizens in society to have access to a non-commercial, public TV. He added that levying Sky TV would be putting some of their profits back to the public. Dr Thompson called it a “polluter pays principle”, to which their was laughter from the audience.
Dr Thompson revealed that he was both optimistic and pessimistic in his feelings about TVNZ7.
He said that he believed TVNZ7 will be canned by the government.
But he also believed that, in the end, something bigger in public TV would arise. He was confident that the public would reclaim their right to have public TV.
Dr Thompson concluded his talk by offering copies of his speech to those who were interested. He received good applause from the audience.
Wallace Chapman then welcomed questions from the audience and posed the first question himself to Tom Frewen,
” NZ on Air says they are in the ‘diversity game’. They say they have ‘something for everyone’. What do you say to that? “
Tom Frewen replied that it’s not always about diversity. He said it’s about “who the programmes are made for“. He said it’s about whether the programmes are made for the viewer – or for advertisers.
He raised the example of the recent ‘Strongman‘ mine-disaster documentary, that had been shown on TV3. Mr Frewen said it was a fine documentary,and had obvious relevance to the Pike River mine disaster. He said the closing commentary, shown immediately before the end-credits, made it obvious that the doco referred to current mining issues.
He then questioned, ” but where was the panel discussion afterwards? The government got off very lightly “.
Mr Frewen said that NZ on Air had been taken for a ride on “The GC”. The producers had noticed that there was “spare money sloshing around” and had presented “The GC” as a documentary for NZ on Air funding. He said the final product “was for advertisers, not for us“. He said programmes had to be made for the viewer, and not for advertisers, otherwise it was a commercial exercise and not public TV.
A question from the audience; “There were no votes in this. How do we get the public onboard? “
Clare Curran said she had a couple of suggestions.
Firstly, she said, we needed a public discussion on this. It won’t happen overnight, she said, but we needed a public conversation on this issue. She asked people to talk to friends, family, and workmates, to make this an issue.
Secondly, she invited people to vote for Labour, so that a Labour-led government could re-introduce a stronger public TV system, with guaranteed, ring-fenced funding and at arms-length from political interference.
Another question from the audience; “How do they calculate ratings for TVNZ7, especially for arts programmes? “
One of the panellists replied that Nielson collects data from 500 households, using an electronic box mounted on TV sets. The box collects information on when a TV is switch on and what channels and programmes are being watched.
However, the box does not monitor actual watching by the viewer, and does not record if the viewer stops watching to go make a cup of tea during the ad breaks, or if the viewer has left the room, or fallen asleep on the couch.
Another question; “How are the 500 households chosen? “
Answer; Households were chosen by their demographics, to ‘roughly represent’ the composition of New Zealand society. However, that demographics would not take into account small minorities,
“You won’t see Armenian programming on television “, one of the panellists remarked.
Another question; “Referencing the Leveson Inquiry [investigating Murdoch's corporate activities and corruption in the UK], should we be having a Royal Commission of Inquiry into media ownership in New Zealand ?”
Ms Curran answered the question by saying,
- We needed a public debate on media ownership in this country.
- The Commerce Commission was engaged in an investigation into media contracts and content.
Next question came from Tom Frewen, and pointedly asked Wallace Chapman,
“Why do you think there is no discission or reporting of this on other television networks? “
Mr Chapman relied that aside from ‘Media7‘ [media commentary programme on TVNZ7] broaching the subject, no other television channel wanted to be seen referencing this issue. He said it was not an issue that benefitted coverage by other television stations.
Dr Thompson asked the audience a question of his own; “If public TV was administered by a foundation, what should it look like? There were considerable infrastructure issues to work out with a fully independent public TV broadcaster, if it was to be separate from TVNZ. What sort of public TV do we want? “
One audience member offered a suggestion that an independent trust could be modelled on the charitable trust that owned the ‘Guardian‘ newspaper in the UK. He said it was important to remove TVNZ7 out of the hands of politicians.
Another audience member said that a charitable trust could be funded by the Lotteries Commission, and agreed that it was important to keep public TV out of the hands of politicians.
Another audience member suggested a subscription-style funding model, such as the PBS Network in the United States.
Dr Thompson replied that there were problems with that system in terms of ‘economies of scale’. New Zealand needed 270 million people to make a fully-funded subscription model work. There were simply not enough people in this country to make a voluntary subscription system work.
Tom Frewen added that a subscription model was another form of pay-TV. It would work only if there was no other available alternative model. He agreed with Dr Thompson that the population was too small to make it work properly.
Sue Kedgeley said she was not in favour of subscriptions either and would rather see at least one commercial-free, free-to-air TV channel.
Ms Curran said that NZ on Air needs to be looked at to see how they are spending their [taxpayers] money. She added,
“TVNZ7 should have been growing, so our children do not grow up with American accents. We need to have public TV independent of government, and funding ring-fenced. Labour is committed to public TV.”
One member of the audience stood, and was obviously passionate – if somewhat misguided in his criticisms – when he seemed to attack the politicians on the panel, demanding to know, over and over again,
“What are you doing about it? “
Ms Curran attempted to placate the obviously agitated man, and Grant Robertson stepped in to explain that the Opposition were the opposition because the public had not voted for opposition parties in sufficient numbers. He said that if the public wanted public TV, they have to support it at the ballot box,
Sue Kedgeley added that the public has not had a passionate debate on the issue, and that we needed a group to fight for public TV, much like ‘Greenpeace’ fought on behalf of the environment. “We need a Greenpeace-style body campaigning passionately for public TV and to carry it through “, she said.
Mr Chapman agreed that there was considerable public frustration on this issue.
This blogger then had an opportunity to address the audience and panel,
” I’ve no doubt that TVNZ7 will not be saved by this government. Unless 50,000 people take to the streets, National’s record of listening to the public is not great.
I suggest two ways that a future public TV channel could be kept out of politicians hands, because that, to me, is the greatest threat.
Firstly, funding should be independent. I suggest a body such as the Remuneration Authority which decides the pay and conditions of politicians and which is independent of their control. Such an independent body could be legislated to fund public TV and Radio NZ, and make funding automatically inflation adjusted. That takes control awqay from politicians.
Secondly, we need to use the power of contracts, which the New Right use to good effect, to bind governments to maintain public TV. A contract could be for a term of 7 years which would be two parliamentary terms plus one year. That should take it well out of the hands of any National government.”
The next member of the audience asked how many peple in the audience had Sky TV, and suggested that Sky customers suspend their subscriptions for one month, as protest against the demise of TVNZ7.
Another member of the public demanded to know, “Can we get Dr Thompson on TV? “
Wallace Chapman replied,
“I don’t know how we can do that. “
Dr Thompson added that his appearance on TV [to speak on behalf on TVNZ7] would be unlikely,
“State TV is to shy of upsetting government. “
He said that Jim Blackman, who ran ‘Stratos TV‘ until earlier this year, tried to link up with TVNZ7, and there were some talks on the issue, but nothing came of it. He suggested that people should get in touch with Mr Blackman and support him.
Grant Robertson then stood and said that he was promising to commit to forming a Campaign for Public Broadcasting and would work through the Save TVNZ7 website to keep people informed on progress.
He seemed determined that this would happen, and suggested that members of the audience should volunteer to participate.
Mr Robertson thanked the audience for turning up on a chilly Monday night, and thanked Wallace Chapman, for flying down from Auckland to attend and host this public meeting.
Grant Robertson also paid tribute to Wallace Chapman for his role in fronting ‘Backbenches’, and for making politics fun for viewers to watch.
There was a loud, enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, and the meeting concluded.
This blogger met the blogger from ‘Kumara Republic‘, and we chatted about our respective bloggings.
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