Put it out of its misery

After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.

John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.

Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.

The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.

At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):

The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealand’s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasn’t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.

To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”

TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.


9 thoughts on “Put it out of its misery

  1. I don’t know.

    I prefer TVNZ’s response to TV3’s. On one level I don’t know if have all that new on our main channels is necessary. It seems to me that it creates a heightened level of fear and anxiety. Leave that level of coverage to the specialty news channels.

    Sure go to breaking news for major events, even do the wholesale interruption as they did for Christchurch, but unless it is something that really looks like to have a game changing impact on New Zealand leave it at that.

    The only reason TV3 took their course was because of Christchurch, which indicates to me that we are opperating at a level of anxiety and fear that is unhealthy.

    Just a thought.

    Actually talking TVNZ, instead of launching another useless entertainment channel [U], maybe they could have launched a specialty New Zealand 24 hour News channel?

  2. I’ve actually found the BBC’s coverage, which I’ve been relying on as much as NHK’s, to be severely wanting. For instance, they claimed Tokyo was “almost on the other side of the country” to Sendai. This isn’t just a minor factual error, when shown alongside images of office buildings in Tokyo swaying it creates the impression that the earthquake has struck the whole country, whereas large areas have been entirely unaffected or only very lightly affected. I’m presuming this was just a dumb (if poorly placed) error rather than an attempt to create sensationalism (and thus get in more viewers) but it still calls into question the idea of the BBC as a model for this kind of thing.

  3. Michael, with respect,. it looks like you’re trying to argue (without really arguing) that TVNZ’s decision was a legitimate decision for a public service newscaster to make given the circumstances. I don’t believe it is.

    It’s certainly true that the decision would have been reasonable for a non-newscaster to make, and indeed that it served the needs of some segment of the commercial-TV-watching population (though what share of the population cares to watch cheap reality TV about Pineapple Dance Studios of a Friday night I am not sure). But TVNZ’s claim is that it is a public service broadcaster with a serious news focus. Moreover, that claim is written into its founding statutes, and it receives taxpayer funding to fulfil that broad mandate. Given the circumstances, I see no way they can possibly argue they’ve fulfilled that role while all but ignoring what looks like it will be one of the major global news events of the year.

    As to your criticism that TV3 only cares so much about the Japanese quake because of Christchurch; I agree that that is true, but that that’s a perfectly good reason to care about it. It doesn’t suggest “operating at a level of fear and anxiety that is unhelpful”; go back and read my previous arguments about the role of the global media: among the many important functions are building sympathy and empathy for the plight of the victims and their societies (and willingness to contribute aid funding); illustrating the effects of a major disaster, from which people can gain information about how — and how not — respond; conveying crucial information about the specific areas worst hit, including information about the New Zealanders there, and families of Japanese in New Zealand who might be there; and perhaps most crucially in our present context, demonstrating what a really good governmental disaster preparedness and response system looks like. Because far from being self-indulgent disaster porn, watching the Japanese get a response many times larger than our own up and running in a fraction of the time contains lessons we’d be wise to heed.

    The last line of your comment I’d love to agree with, except I have to say: we apparently already have one in TVNZ7, and look how much good that does us.


  4. Hugh:

    I hope that you and yours are safe and well, especially if you have extended family and friends there.

  5. I’m miles from Fukushima so feeling pretty safe, although it is of course plastered all over the media. But it’s ironic. Two weeks ago my Japanese friends were falling over themselves to ask how my New Zealand friends are. Now the opposite is true.

  6. the nuclear situation is looking grimmer by the day. my friends have started to leave for western japan (i’m in tokyo). the media coverage of the situation with the cooling pools for spent fuel rod assemblies has been very lacking. these pools are positioned above each (GE-designed) reactor. two of the reactor outer buildings do not have roofs or upper walls anymore. the exposed pools are a huge risk.

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