Myles Thomas: Newshub, TVNZ job cuts: We now have the worst TV in the Western world

The closure of NZ's last current affairs television programme, Sunday, and Newshub
The closure of NZ's last primetime current affairs television programme, Sunday, and the dumping of Three's Newshub show that Kiwis have the worst television and video media in the Western world. Image: Newshub screenshot APR

COMMENTARY: By Myles Thomas

The announced closure of Television New Zealand’s last primetime current affairs programme seems to be the final nail in the coffin for New Zealand’s television credibility. Coming a day after the announcement of the closure of Newshub, it shows that Kiwis have the worst television and video media in the Western world.

Let’s compare ourselves with our mates across the ditch. Australia’s ABC TV features a nightly current affairs show called 7.30. The blurb for it reads:

“Sarah Ferguson presents Australia’s premier daily current affairs program, delivering agenda-setting public affairs journalism and interviews that hold the powerful to account. Plus political analysis from Laura Tingle.”

Clearly 7.30 is far more serious than our Seven Sharp with its fluffy stories and advertorials. The ABC also screens six weekly current affairs shows and documentaries this week. Shows like Australian Story, Four Corners and Media Watch.

But Australia has five times as many people as we do so that’s why they can afford it, right?

Ireland has five million people, like NZ, but they still have primetime current affairs. In fact, the Irish enjoy quite a lot of it. The Irish version of TVNZ is RTÉ and features a nightly current affairs show called Nationwide and three weekly current affairs programmes on serious topics.

There are several other human interest factual programmes too, on subjects like history, gardening, dance and more. It’s the same in other countries with similar populations such as Norway, Denmark, Finland and so on.

It’s true that in New Zealand, there’s still the off-peak studio politics programmes like Q+A, and current affairs in te ao Māori are well examined on Whakaata Māori. But what about the rest of NZ?

Some people might say television is dead, and everything is online now. But nearly all online current affairs videos start out as television programmes. The only exceptions are Newsroom’s video investigations with Melanie Reid, and Stuff Circuit which is now disbanded. And for younger audiences there is Re: which TVNZ is also making cuts to.

Death of current affairs TV
The death of New Zealand’s prime-time current affairs television has been a long time coming. At first it was documentaries that dwindled and then disappeared off our screens.

Other genres that are expensive to produce have also become extinct or rarer than a fairy tern — drama, science programmes, kidult, arts programmes, wildlife documentaries, chat shows. Now we can add consumer affairs and prime-time current affairs to the list.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If other countries can do it, why not NZ?

On Wednesday, the Minister for Media and Communications, Melissa Lee, said “I don’t think I can actually save anything. I’m trying to be who I am, the Minister for Media and Communications.”

This suggests either a lack of understanding of her role or a lack of ambition. She also let slip that there was no way she could save Newshub.

The only substantive solution to come from the minister is her promise to review the Broadcasting Act. But that review process was initiated by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage years ago and started under the Labour government.

Moreover, the Broadcasting Act does little more than lay out the rules for broadcasting complaints, election broadcasting, and establish NZ On Air, the BSA and Te Māngai Pāho.

Minister just tweaking
The minister says she is reviewing the Broadcasting Act to create a “more level playing field” and allow media businesses to “innovate”. That doesn’t sound like it will do much for television and video current affairs, which will take much more than just tweaking how NZ On Air and the BSA work.

Perhaps she intends something much more comprehensive, such as a new funding stream for public media, perhaps through a levy, a compulsory subscription, or even a licence fee.

Despite her protestations, there are several options available to the minister. To save TVNZ’s Fair Go and Sunday, she could provide TVNZ with an interim cash injection (which is actually what governments often do in disasters) until the comprehensive long-term funding is sorted out.

To save Newshub she could promise to remove advertising from TVNZ, or partially on weekends only. This would throw Warner Bros Discovery a lifeline in the form of advertisers looking for a television station to advertise on. She does not have to stand by and watch while our media burns.

Sunday is only with us for a few more weeks. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Myles Thomas is a trustee for Better Public Media Trust. This article was first published by The New Zealand Herald and is republished with the author’s permission.

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