TVNZ cuts – one finger now, but soon the heart?

So the axe is falling again at TVNZ. Yesterday’s announcement that TVNZ management will shave $25 million from the national broadcaster’s budget was not a surprise.  In some circles it’s what we might call a “pre-emptive buckle”.

That is, the organisation has chosen to chop off it’s own little finger, rather than have the Nationals’ Razor Gang do the job. The Yakuza has a similar punishment ritual, it’s meant to demonstrate iron discipline, instill fear and, through fear, loyalty.

Understandable really. Better to be in charge of your own destiny, even if it’s the death of a thousand cuts. At least when hacking into your own flesh (if it’s not a death wish) you can have a decent first aid kit on hand to stem the blood flow.

On paper (on screen?) it looks like the cuts are evenly spread.

The top executives have agreed to a pay-freeze (head-shaking, “Why?”). I guess this demonstrates their commitment to the organisation and it’s supposed to send a signal that the pain is being shared and that the top rung is leading from the front.

Though, if you’re lemmings heading for a clifftop fall, who wants to be in the front line. Tired cliche I know and lemmings don’t actually rush head-long off clifftops, but why let the truth get in the way of a good urban-myth-as-metaphor line.

As the TVNZ media release indicates, the cost-cutting does not single out any one area:

The proposed payroll cost reductions represent approximately 25 percent of the cost reductions. Departmental operating budgets had been reduced by approximately 10 percent. The cuts to programme commissioning budgets equates to about 100 hours or approximately 3 percent of local content hours. The impact on TV ONE and TV2 prime time schedules is not expected to be material. The News and Current Affairs programme line-up will remain unchanged.
The proposed redundancies come from across the business including Technology, Finance & Legal, Support Services, HR, Corporate Affairs, Broadcast Services, Marketing, Television, Sports, News and Current Affairs. There are limited redundancies in Sales and none in Emerging Business (on-line and licensing) because they are the revenue earning and growth areas of the company.

I wrote a week ago about the philsophical quagmire of regarding TVNZ as a public service broadcaster with a commercial mandate. This is a recipe for disaster. It brings the organisation to a place where it cannot really react in any other way. Unfortunately it is the commitment to public service and the public interest that suffers.

But I’m through carping. My position is clear. TVNZ should be EITHER a not-for-profit public service broadcaster, or a commercial operation. It cannot be both successfully.

As a “shareholder” I don’t want the board of directors (the Cabinet essentially) to keep bleeding TVNZ for an ostensible “return” on “investment”. I don’t think government should be run like a commercial organisation.

Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t the role of government to work for the public interest and to support cultural organisations that benefit the whole of society. I know this isn’t the National way (it’s not even really the Labour way) so I’m not crying into my martini about what Key and English have done with TVNZ.

However, I do think that there’s a fundamental point about the role of government here and a fundamental point about the political outlook of the National/ACT government. They want to run the country like NZ Incorporated and to do that they have to follow the logic of capital – to cut costs and protect shareholder value.

In this case it’s a skewed view of value though. The supposed benefit to me as a shareholder is that I can be happy that my board of directors has kicked some lazy public service arse and got the ship-of-state steaming at a goodly rate of knots in the right direction.

“Captain, we’ve lightened the vessel to increase speed as ordered.”
“Good lieutenant, did you follow my instructions?”
“Sir, to the letter sir. We threw all under performing ratings over the side and jettisoned the rum, the brass band and dancing girls, the ice-detection gear and half the passengers.”

“Jolly good lieutenant, carry on.”

Meanwhile…somewhere in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean…

It’s not about the cost, it’s about the benefits. I won’t repeat my arguments about why TVNZ is important, but you can surf over the various sites where public broadcasting is defined and defended in solid terms. So here’s a sampling of local colour.
The first is from Radio New Zealand’s own website. I’m sure it’ll need to be changed now:

What is public service broadcasting?

Public service broadcasting provides a public space where citizens can listen to programmes to be informed, entertained and/or enlightened.

  • It is publicly funded, independent, autonomous, and motivated by service, not profit.
  • Public service broadcasting is essential to a well functioning democratic society.[RNZ FAQ]

The TVNZ page is equally strident in defence of public broadcasting:

The TVNZ Charter provides a guide to our broadcasting responsibilities and makes it clear that TVNZ’s role is to reflect and explore what it means to be a New Zealander. To New Zealanders this unique and special responsibility means quality television that educates, informs and entertains through local home grown programming and the best of international programming. [About TVNZ]

It goes on to talk about 90 per cent of funding coming from commercial sources, but doesn’t mention the dividend paid to the central government coffers.

What I really want to draw your attention to though is this insightful speech in defence of public broadcasting:

I believe, the manner in which we are uncritically accepting unaccountable markets as a substitute for accountable public policy represents one of the most serious aspects of this drift away from democracy. Indeed I believe, we are now living through the early stages of a deep enslavement.

It is a historical moment of the greatest importance – our retreat from the public world, or substitution of existence as consumers for an active life as citizens, our definition of our world as a world of private consumption, our surrender on terms we neither understand nor have negotiated, to the market.

The loss of the public world is being experienced through the subjugation of the cultural space to a set of economic policies derived historically from a very narrow ideological furrow – the adherents of Van Hayek and the New Right.

It is a time of the greatest pessimism for even such distinguished historians of, and contributors to, public service broadcasting, as Michael Tracey whose seminal work The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting charts the story of broadcasting right up to its present time of crisis.

Crisis it is.

Broadcasting now stands to be judged as a production space for commodified entertainment product rather than that public space where citizens listened and viewed to be informed, educated, or entertained.

Some of you might recognise this, it comes from a paper by Michael Higgins delivered to a symposium on the future of broadcasting in New Zealand held at the Beehive in 1999. At the time Higgins had recently been a minister in the Irish government and he remains a fiery old bugger and still involved in Irish politics. We should take some notice.

Those who ignore history are bound to repeat its mistakes. Higgins continues and it’s as if this was written yesterday, not a decade ago:

The main tendencies in communications at the present time include convergence of technology, concentration of ownership in a number of international conglomerates and fragmentation of audiences. These tendencies occur at a time when the prevailing ideology guiding economic policy decisions is one that places an emphasis on unrestricted market adjustments.

The circumstances of these transitions are different from other historical shifts of the industrial era. It is very different to question, indeed identify, the assumptions, upon which they are based. We are drifting into, rather than choosing, this new condition of our unfreedom – our existence as consumers rather than citizens.

He’s right and the tendencies noted here are today coming to dominate our cultural and broadcasting landscape. I did an interview today with Todd Symonds of Shine TV about the TVNZ situation. I made two points:

  1. The government should forgo the dividend for at least 12 months to allow TVNZ to retain staff and maintain its Charter obligations
  2. News and Current Affairs should be quarantined from the cuts.

I’d now like to add a third point. The whole commercial basis of TVNZ needs to be reconsidered.

In the current global media market of shrinking audiences and declining advertising revenues, the commercial/capitalist business model is failing. The funding model for TVNZ needs to be revisited and its relationship with government redefined.

For a start, what about a licence fee?This is something that Michael Higgins concludes is a viable option:

In the end we are left with the conclusion that we should use the new convergence in technology to give a leadership role to public service broadcasting in a mixed model. We should do that, and fund it through the licence fee, and rejecting populist arguments to the contrary, issue an invitation to the alternative to populism – an active citizenship that will enable us to feel at home in our world.

For second, what about government revoking the dividend legislation and allowing TVNZ to re-invest in itself.

This is the real public interest for New Zealand. As Michael Higgins points out we are losing our rights as citizens under the pretext of the government protecting some vested interest we technically (but not in any real sense) hold as shareholders. In the end we lose our citizenship and merely become consumers and the product we are consuming becomes degraded.

Blurring the values content of the new revolution suits the conglomerates who benefit from a concentration of ownership as much as it weakens citizenship. The shared space will come under threat and we should remember the injunction of one great writer on broadcasting – “We humanise what is going on in the world and within ourselves only by speaking of it and in the course of speaking about it we learn to be human”. We live by stories and the principles by which stories are selected, the skill with which they are told, and their resonance or otherwise in our own culture is a fundamental democratic concern.

I don’t think we can afford to let National fuck with TVNZ much more. In the interview I did for Shine, Todd asked me about the possibility that TVNZ is on the block to be privatised if (we let) the Nationals get a second go at the Beehive.

I said that I thought it was certainly on the Nationals political agenda and that they’re quite capable of using the Shock Doctrine to push privatisation of many public service activities through, even in this term and despite their promise not to. They only need to argue that things are “worse” than they first thought and that it’s necessary surgery on the body politic.

So, yes, I think that full privatisation of TVNZ is a possibility, but there’s one thing standing in the way. Globally the media industry is not such a hot commodity right now. As Tony O’Reilly found out when he tried to sell APN and the NZ Herald.

There’s no readily identifible buyer out there. Though I’d never discount the Grey Fox. Maybe, just maybe, that wily octegenarian has the money and the desire. Then again, he might be satisfied by chopping into Prime to fill his over-flowing pockets.

One Response to TVNZ cuts – one finger now, but soon the heart?

  1. Truth Seeker says:

    National are obviously in the business of denigrating any SOE or state asset in orer to justify selling it later.

    It’s amazing to see them use the same old tactics…and expect everyone to fall for it again.

    But they can’t be very bright….following the tried and failed policies of the Bush Republicans.

    Mind you, a good chunk of the population voted for them – either KNOWING these follies were their policies or having NO IDEA.

    Not sure which is worse.

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