Wednesday, 7 March 2012

SKY's net

With the closure of Stratos and the impending demise of TVNZ 7, public broadcasting is an endangered species in the Long White Cloud. Even Radio NZ, one of its last remaining bastions, is under a cloud of fiscal straitjackets and down-marketing.

TVNZ 7's soon-to-be axing was justified by supposedly low viewer figures. Now that such figures have been exposed as deflated, those responsible initially tried to deny all knowledge, only to relent and publish a correction. So it probably smacks of setting up the competition to fail. But aren't public broadcasters intended to complement commercial broadcasters, rather than compete with them?

Broadcasting and media are far more than just a saleable product like a car or hamburger, they're a means of mass information and public influence, and when vested interests come to dominate it - as the recent controversy over a child poverty doco, and the News of the World hacking scandal went to show - they're difficult to dislodge. In Australia, mining heiress Gina Rinehart is buying into Fairfax Media, the publisher of the Melbourne Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Dominion Post. And given her public outbursts, somehow it's not for the return on investment. Going further back, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst successfully inflated cannabis into the increasingly expensive moral panic that it is today.
Old media outlets are struggling to adapt to the digital age, and are making up lost ground by going further downmarket and tabloid-ish. But there comes a point where things eventually hit rock bottom.

Sure, there's still TVNZ Kidzone 24 and TVNZ Heartland. The catch? You need to be a SKY subscriber to watch them. It'd be the equivalent of the BBC archives being exclusively available on BSkyB, something the BBC would never allow or get away with.

The few local shows broadcast by SKY are mostly sports-related, and there's little in the way of local comedy or drama. Award-winning shows like Wild South and Flight of the Conchords are popular overseas, and there's a big market for serious current affairs, but free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters alike see no money in them - or they think they're too 'intellectual' for NZ viewers. As Luke Goode wrote in the NZ Herald, such attitudes insult the intelligence of a great deal of NZers - myself included - and is symptomatic of a wider cargo-cult cringe:
"As Colin Peacock pointed out in this room a fortnight ago, it is simplistic at best and really quite condescending at worst to trot out the mantra that no one outside the chattering classes wants serious long-form news and current affairs any more. He quoted Brent Impey's quip that, in New Zealand, no one outside Grey Lynn, Herne Bay or Parnell would watch it."

SKY has outbid all else for most major sporting events. As for competition, well, forget it. TelstraClear threw in the towel and is currently wholesaleing SKY's feed, and is yet to make good on its threat to broadcast more non-SKY content. The upcoming Igloo platform, marketed as a TVNZ-SKY joint venture, is really just another case of SKY wearing the pants. Netflix is giving NZ a miss, not just because it feels the Internet is too backward, but also because of exclusive broadcast rights issues. On top of that, Internet providers are offering data cap holidays if customers purchase preferential deals with SKY. Stephen Fry's dissing of the state of NZ's Internet quality comes as no surprise - the only surprise is that it took so long for someone of his calibre to say so.

Is it any wonder file-sharing is widely popular? Take the case of the wildly popular TV fantasy drama Game of Thrones.

There's hope yet, though. The Leveson Inquiry in Britain following the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and the Finkelstein Inquiry in Australia are conducting massive reviews of media cartel practices. A Royal Commission in NZ along the same lines would be long overdue.

My graphical take on this whole state of affairs is coming soon. Watch this space.

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