Quixotic Mission? From its very inception TV3 has tried to fulfil the role of a creative and independent public broadcaster - largely because TVNZ declined to accept that role for itself. But commercial and public broadcasting are two, very different, things. In the end, if funds expended exceed funds received, a private sector corporation has to act. Campbell Live's supporters are attacking the wrong network.
JOHN CAMPBELL’S FRIENDS – and he has many – are attacking the wrong television network. Mediaworks is not the problem – and never has been. Nor is it the solution – though, from its very inception, nearly 30 years ago, it has (rather Quixotically, in my opinion) tried to be. If I may borrow that marvellous line from George Lucas’s Star Wars: Privately-owned, commercially-driven television, “are not the droids you are looking for”. The network John Campbell’s imperial stormtroopers should be pursuing, plasma rifles and light-sabres held high, is the one they already own – Television New Zealand.
It is one of the great ironies of New Zealand’s (relatively) recent cultural history that the impetus towards free and open airways has, to a startling degree, come from freewheeling cultural entrepreneurs like Colin Scrimgeour, Gordon Dryden, George Andrews, Marcia Russell and Rod Pedersen. Not forgetting that madcap piratical quartet who, in 1966, launched Radio Hauraki.
By and large, these were not individuals who cared a great deal about making a profit. What they did care about, however, was innovative, creative, challenging and, most of all, exciting broadcasting. Whether it was Colin Scrimgeour’s subversive “Friendly Road”; Gordon Dryden’s experiments in “talkback” on Radio Pacific; or Rod Pedersen’s anarchic “Nightline” programme on TV3; the point was always to fashion something as far removed from the dull fare of officially-sanctioned broadcasting as possible – and then beam it, with unapologetic glee, into the living rooms of the unsuspecting public.
One of the strangest aspects of New Zealand’s deeply conformist society is the way it drives so many of its non-conforming citizens into the private sector. Not, it must be said, in the spirit of avarice that makes true capitalists rich, but because it seemed to them about the only place where it was possible to set up an institution capable of saying “Yes”.
What many of them failed to grasp, however, was that although New Zealand’s state and local government bureaucrats were among the greatest nay-sayers in the world, the marketplace also possesses some pretty inflexible rules of its own. The greatest of these being the rule that insists money has to flow both ways. No matter what the enterprise, if funds expended are not exceeded by funds received, then: “Houston, we have a problem.”
Getting the money to flow both ways has always been TV3’s greatest challenge. Only intermittedly have the funds it received exceeded the funds it expended. Indeed, the mavericks and dreamers who founded the network had hardly begun broadcasting before they found their beloved creation placed in receivership. Throughout its relatively short life, TV3 has always, like poor Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, “depended on the kindness of strangers”.
Regardless, its extraordinarily talented staff (especially Head of News and Current Affairs, Mark Jennings) have done everything they could to stay true to TV3’s kaupapa. Running a network dedicated to producing the sort of creative and challenging television that the state broadcaster (with the important exception of a few, golden, years in the 1970s and 80s) either couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to the airwaves.
Those “golden” years bear closer scrutiny. For the first time, either before or since, television executives were encouraged to say “Yes”. Television One and South Pacific Television (both state-owned) were persuaded to give the green light to programmes designed not only to entertain, but also educate, and, in a handful of rare and very special cases, elevate their audiences.
What made it all possible was the Broadcasting License Fee. This relatively modest tax, levied on all television users, allowed public television to remain at least partially sheltered from the ratings-driven influences of commercial television. The problem was, people hated paying their Broadcasting License Fee. Viewers who, today, happily fork out $100 per month for Sky TV, thought a fee of less than $100 per year was far too much to pay for a creative, innovative and challenging television network run by – and for – New Zealanders.
TV3 – Mediaworks – have broadcast Campbell Live for as long as they could (and, arguably, a little bit longer than they should). Sometimes strangers have to be cruel to be kind. To expect a commercial network to ignore the most basic rules of private enterprise, in order to satisfy an audience that has yet to demonstrate an equal degree of militancy when it comes to demanding that Television New Zealand meet its responsibilities, isn’t just unfair – it’s entirely misguided!
As New Zealanders, shouldn’t we at least try to summon up the courage to imagine public institutions in which the creative, the challenging, and – yes – even the mavericks can find a place? And, isn’t it long past time that we encouraged the growth of a private sector dedicated to the dynamically dull, but indisputably important, business of making a buck?
Honestly, wouldn’t that be bloody marvellous!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 May 2015.