No one lamenting TVNZ’s relentless plunge down-market would have taken any comfort from a discussion on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon yesterday about the course the state broadcaster is plotting.
Kathryn Ryan invited four guests to discuss recent claims (covered in this blog) that TVNZ is abandoning its traditional core audience of mature viewers for a younger market. Each guest’s contribution was revealing and even enlightening in its own way, if only because they confirmed that the people running the state broadcaster are busily hammering the last nails into the coffin of the public service ethos that once drove the organisation.
Karen Bieleski, a former TV One programmer now with Prime, said she had been told before leaving TVNZ in 2004 that TV One needed a younger audience to attract advertising. There was a marketing-driven push for more glossy, dramatic programming.
Ryan made the point that older viewers have more money to spend and therefore, in theory, should be of greater interest to advertisers than the young. But Bieleski said the people calling the shots in marketing and advertising were young themselves and therefore not interested in the type of programming, such as “quality” British drama, that appealed to older viewers. She suggested TVNZ programmers were breaking the rule that “you’re not supposed to programme for yourself”.
Bieleski acknowledged that critically acclaimed programmes didn’t necessarily rate well but also pointed out that older people tended to watch a lot more television – a claim that seems to be supported by recent Nielsen data from the US which shows that the median viewership (pardon the hideous word) of the four major American TV networks has aged markedly during the past decade. (The average ABC viewer now is aged 51, up from 43. The typical CBS viewer has aged three years, to 55. NBC’s is 49 and Fox’s is a relatively youthful 44.)
Bieleski managed to get in a few plugs for her own channel, saying that Prime loved older viewers. Sky channels such as Living and UK TV had also picked up a lot of mature viewers, she said – the implication being that they had been driven into Sky’s arms by TVNZ’s programming policy, just as this blog has suggested.
Marketing commentator Michael Carney offered the view that the tastes of the 25-54 age group had changed and TVNZ’s programming simply reflected that. He said older viewers (54-plus) could go to the video store. In suggesting an entire generation had miraculously been infantilised, Carney was articulating the self-serving view of marketing and advertising people. It suits their purpose for us to believe that TV viewers have become less discerning and will mindlessly lap up whatever crass reality show it suits them to hurl at us.
Dave Gibson, of independent producer Gibson Group, sternly advised us to wake up and smell the coffee. Times have changed and people need to get over the lifelong habit of watching TV One. More good programmes are being made than ever before, he said; we just have to get off our bums and find them. (In other words, join the drift to Sky, which has trebled its market share since 2000 and now has 800,000 subscribers – refugees from TVNZ, in effect.)
Dave, whom I respect, was probably treading a careful line here. After all, he sells programmes to TVNZ and wouldn’t want to bag them publicly. Yet what he said made sense: the glory days when TVNZ monopolised the airwaves and was expected to cater for everyone are long gone. The market has fragmented and can’t be glued together again.
The obvious rejoinder to this, however – as Ryan pointed out – is that TVNZ remains a state-owned channel. Like it or not (and TVNZ apparently doesn’t like it one bit), it has inherited a public service role and a core audience that still has certain expectations of it. At the very least it should be honest and up-front with its viewers and tell them the game has changed, and it no longer wants them.
Which leads us neatly to Ryan’s fourth guest: Andrew Shaw, the charisma-free children’s show host who rose to become a TVNZ executive with a title far too long to waste space reproducing here. One thing that can be said in Shaw’s defence is that he’s blunt (or perhaps simply arrogant), and he wasted no time trying to humour the delicate sensibilities of older TV One viewers. Shaw was brutally frank (or indiscreet, or simply stupid - take your pick) in declaring that “commercial realities” dictate programming and that advertising agencies determine where they will spend their money. “We chase the shows that rate.”
He was scathingly dismissive of “critically acclaimed” programmes (and he’s right, up to a point) and he stated categorically that the Americans make the best television drama in the world. That explains why the only TVNZ prime-time slots not occupied by crass pseudo-reality shows are filled with formulaic American crime programmes that all look the same.
In a colourful turn of phrase, Shaw referred to “cave dwellers out there who only want to watch Midsomer Murders”. You could almost hear teacups crashing to the floor around the country as fans of British drama clutched their chests.
I suppose we should be grateful to Shaw for being so open in acknowledging (as if there were still any doubt) that the Barbarians have taken over the Citadel. His contempt for the people who have been TVNZ’s most loyal supporters couldn’t have been more clearly expressed.
So where does all this leave us? I can only speak for myself. But as a taxpayer, and therefore an involuntary and unwilling shareholder in TVNZ, I don’t want anything to do with this meretricious outfit. No earthly reason remains why it should be in public ownership. The state might as well invest in a chain of brothels or sex shops.
I have no idea whether TVNZ is eager to be privatised; the politics are beyond me. But its actions certainly suggest that it wants to be cut loose from government ownership, and whatever tiny residual semblance of public obligation that might entail, and I think the government should oblige. TVNZ is the equivalent of a once-favourite child who has turned into a rebarbative P addict yet remains in the family home. Evict it, I say, and change the locks.