AUCKLAND — The government is planning to split off Television New Zealand’s commercial activities to take it back to its roots as a public service broadcaster tapping minority and cultural interests.

Details, including how the initiative is to be funded, are expected early next month.

State-owned TVNZ has operated as a profit-driven company since market-led reforms in the late 1980s.

The pubcaster’s subsidiaries help to bankroll its two TV channels: One subsid provides transmission services for television, radio and telecommunications companies, another looks after satellite links, and a third is a lucrative outside broadcasting company that mainly covers sporting events.

They helped TVNZ report a $10 million profit in the six months to December, providing the government with a nice little dividend of almost $7 million.

But a government charter unveiled at the beginning of the month will force the high-brow TV One to show more primetime local and minority-interest programs beginning July 2002.

Its requirements include programs that “contribute to a sense of citizenship and national identity” and mandates the participation of the indigenous minority Maori population in program-making and planning.

The more commercial TV2, which has a younger target aud, will be less affected.

Critics of the charter, including opposition politicians and, privately at least, top-level TV execs, have dismissed it as short on suggestions as to how expensive minority-interest programming might be funded.

The arts-friendly, left-of-center coalition government took office in late 1999, promising to boost quality programming on TVNZ. But some in the coalition fear that a rapid transition may force it to pump money into what has been a highly profitable state company, so the change is likely to be gradual to avoid a huge drop in ratings and fall in advertising revenue.

Observers have predicted that the only other terrestrial channels, Canwest’s TV3 and TV4, will hit back with popular and cheaper overseas programs.