Four Books on New Zealand Broadcasting (review)

Prometheus 2001, Vo1 19, No 3, p.265-6.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

P. Day, Voice and Vision: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, Volume Two (Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting Trust, 2000). 456pp.
P. Day, The Radio Years: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, Volume One (Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting Trust, 1994). 352pp.
B. Spicer, M. Powell & D. Emanuel, The Remaking of Television New Zealand: 1984-1992 (Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting Trust, 1996). 207pp.
I. Carter, Gadfly: The Life of James Shelly (Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting Trust, 1993). 339pp.

These four books give a good overall account of the way in which New Zealand has developed and implemented broadcasting problems over the 80 years, with Day’s two volume history providing an overview, Carter’s biography of James Shelly describing a Reithian-like prime mover in the development of noncommercial broadcasting up to 1950, and The Remaking of TVNZ relating the commercialising of the public owned TV channels in the late 1980s.

Like each individual, every country’s broadcasting is unique and yet faces the same universal problems. New Zealand’s uniqueness arises partly from a country as big as the British Isles with a much more difficult topography and a twentieth of the population. This is compounded by New Zealand being physically isolated – the nearest significant land mass, Australia, is three-and-a-half flying hours away – but culturally it is a part of the English-speaking world which provides programs for much larger audiences far more cheaply per viewer. Thus, there are physical and funding problems of providing national coverage in both the geographical and cultural senses.

All broadcasting systems face the problem of the balance between commercial and noncommercial provision. New Zealand’s solution until the late 1960s was to have a publicly owned monopoly with some parts funded by a broadcasting fee and others by advertising, but with the two intricately mixed up in the technological provision and financial accounts: the sole television channel had advertising-free days each week.

The monopoly first broke down in the late 1960s with the establishment of private radio (precipitated by an offshore floating pirate broadcaster), and in the 1980s a third privately owned television channel was established competing against the now almost entirely advertising-funded publicly-owned pair.

The story is well told (with numerous pictures) by Day, although the overseas reader may find the anecdotes humorous but distracting. (May they remind her or him that broadcasting has played an integral role in community cohesion, and so the New Zealand reading public will find the books a repository of part of its collective memory.) His history provides an excellent background for those with an interest in contemporary broadcasting policy.

For in the 1980s the government commercialised broadcasting. There were a few concessions: two advertising free radio networks providing approximate equivalents to the BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, the establishment of a Maori-based radio network (see below), and limited public subsidisation of some television production But the nation’s broadcasting system became dominated by commercial interests and competition. Licences to use the radio frequency spectrum were auctioned off liberally, so today there are more radio stations in Auckland that there are in Sydney with four times the population. The government-owned two-channel Television New Zealand was put onto an entirely commercial footing with its prime purpose to make profit and so it became ratings driven. There was even talk of TVNZ being privatised. The story is detailed in Spicer, Powell and Emanuel which nicely captures the flavour of the reforms by almost totally ignoring such indicators of broadcasting performance as program quality and mix, and audience satisfaction.

In fact audience satisfaction has not been high for television, although there has been more approval for radio because the diversity stations have met the needs of the increasingly heterogeneous community. As a result the recently elected Labour-Alliance government is trying to reorient TVNZ to a more public purpose focus. Day’s history only goes up to 1999, so it provides a historical foundation for the new developments. It does the same for the technological challenges that now face the industry from satellite, internet, and so on. Indeed, his book shows that broadcasting has been far more technologically driven in the last 40 years than one might at first suppose.

The other great challenge to broadcasting policy has been the demands of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand (15 percent of the population are of Maori descent, but most of them are of European descent too). They have acquired a government-funded radio net work and are shortly to have a government-funded television channel. Of course the issue is particular to New Zealand but it also reflects the wider problem of how to respond to the broadcasting needs of minorities. Again Day’s history sets the background for current developments.

So while the peculiarities of New Zealand may suggest these books are of local interest, probably one of the most promising areas for the development of understanding of broadcasting policy is by way of cross-country comparisons as each country faces the same problems but adopts different solutions. The world’s broadcasting scholars are fortunate that New Zealand’s Broadcasting History Trust has been able to support so many studies and that Professor Pat Day, in particular, has done such a fine job in responding to the opportunities that it created.