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Bernard Lagan: The RNZ-TVNZ merger should look to the Aussie model

With plans on the table to create a new public broadcaster, New Zealand could learn from Australia's experience.

One of the pleasures of living in Australia – when it’s not burning – is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or “Aunty”, as the national radio and television network is fondly known.

There is an easy familiarity about it, both in benefits and irritants. In my more than three decades in Australia, the ABC has remained instantly recognisable; its radio news bulletins are still preceded on the hour by British composer Charles Williams’ 1935 work Majestic Fanfare and the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs programme, Four Corners, has been running weekly since 1961.

In case anyone thinks the broadcaster is mired in the past, it has 1200 journalists and content makers who operate across a multi-station radio and television network. They provide more than two million live and on-demand content streams every week to digital listeners and viewers. Among them is music radio station triple j, which burst on to the airwaves in 1975 playing Skyhooks’ You Just Like Me ’Cos I’m Good in Bed, a track then banned by commercial radio stations.

Of course, it gobbles big bucks. The ABC is funded directly by the Government at a cost of more than $1 billion a year. Then there are the separate ethnic-focused SBS radio and television networks and Aboriginal channel NITV.

In total, Australia spends $1.6 billion on public broadcasting, about $67 a person a year, compared with New Zealand’s just under $50 a head. For that we get a broadcaster dedicated to telling stories from Australia and around the world – the ABC has 11 fully staffed foreign bureaux – unfettered by the click-bait culture that ratings and advertisers impose on commercial broadcasters.

In contrast, much of New Zealand’s free-to-air television, especially the shallow crime-infested, hard-luck-ridden sensationalism that passes for news, and is slavishly copied from commercial Australian broadcasters, is dispiriting.

The Government’s move to consider the business case for disbanding RNZ and TVNZ and returning to a single ABC-style radio and television public broadcaster – as revealed by RNZ’s political editor, Jane Patterson, in mid-November – is commendable.

MediaWorks’ Three is on its knees. The publisher of Stuff, the Dominion Post, the Press and the Sunday Star-Times is in the hands of an unenthusiastic Australian owner. The need for a committed public broadcaster in New Zealand – free from the downmarket yoke of a commercial return – has surely never been greater.

Merging the public broadcasting culture of RNZ with TVNZ’s deeply commercial orientation won’t be easy. Perhaps the answer lies in part in the hybrid model Australia used when it set up SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) in 1980.

SBS carried limited advertising (five minutes an hour), which provided the government-funded broadcaster with extra revenue that it used to produce quality local content.

When former New Zealand broadcasting executive Shaun Brown became head of SBS in 2006, the channel expanded its advertising content and, although controversial at the time, it is now a well-regarded public broadcaster with a respectable audience. Last year, Australian-produced series The Hunting broke records to become its highest-rating drama series ever.

If New Zealand decides to create a new public broadcaster, it might consider adopting a charter, such as underpins the ABC (and which TVNZ had from 2003 to 2008). The ABC’s charter, written into law, has as its first requirement: “to provide innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services [that] contribute to a sense of national identity, educate, inform, entertain and reflect Australian cultural diversity.”

It’s been a long time since New Zealand’s commercial model aspired to that.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This column was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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