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Kiwi webs fume at comercial p’caster

TVNZ getting about $57 million in taxpayer coin

AUCKLAND — Two years ago, private commercial webs welcomed the New Zealand government’s decision to take the commercial edge off TVNZ, the dominant state-owned broadcaster.

TVNZ’s channels TV One and TV2, which have a 60% share of the aud, were ordered to show more minority-interest and “risky” shows in return for government subsidies in place of the usual viewers’ license fee.

The commercial webs hoped the pubcaster channels would become, well, less commercial and auds would switch to their channels.

But it ain’t been so.

TVNZ gets about $57 million in taxpayer coin — $20 million more than two years ago — but there is precious little sign of the channels becoming less commercial.

In fact private sector broadcasters say there are so few checks and balances on the new subsidies that coin is not going into minority fare but into commercial shows. And that puts them at a disadvantage.

It’s a complaint that has been echoed in the U.K. and Germany where commercial webs battle better-funded, dominant pubcasters.

TVNZ remains the biggest player in the TV advertising market and shows no signs of reducing its focus on ratings.

The private sector’s anger was fueled earlier in February when the government released its “Call to Action,” an oft-delayed statement about its broadcasting policy that was short on action and long on vague support for a pubcasting.

Private-sector broadcasters CanWest Mediaworks and Kerry Packer-backed Prime New Zealand had hoped it would clear up a bewildering array of new subsidies and rebates. And they hoped it would set out rules so TVNZ could not use subsidies to compete unfairly in the commercial market.

But their gripes were not addressed.

“It’s smoke and mirrors,” says Brent Impey, the tough-talking chief executive of Canada’s CanWest Mediaworks New Zealand, which operates TV3 and free-to-air music web C4. “We support the principle of public-service broadcasting, but TVNZ has a mandate to behave commercially and still gets subsidies.”

Prime New Zealand CEO Chris Taylor says the $400,000 subsidy for TVNZ’s “New Zealand Idol” typified the lack of controls on funding.

“How could you subsidize ‘Idol’? It’s the most successful international commercial format in the world,” he complains.

TVNZ CEO Ian Fraser argues that public-service programming does not mean low ratings. He says TVNZ has to make profits to keep up its output deals with Warner Bros. and Disney.

Truth is both parties are right. TVNZ has always operated commercially, and while there are noncommercial objectives, its charter leaves no room for it to lose audience share.

Politicians want it to show more local and minority fare and are handing it several different lines of government coin.

But TVNZ still has to deliver a commercial return before much of the money is handed back as a rebate. So the bigger the profits, the more coin.

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