An interview with Robert Clarkson of the New Zealand Friends of
Public Broadcasting Inc.
"Why should we pay our broadcasting fee when there has been talk of
introducing sponsorship to National Radio and television consists of
advertisements joined by snippets of programme?".
That sort of comment has been made all too frequently in New Zealand in
During a recent visit to New Zealand Robert McChesney, associate professor
at Wisconsin University's school of journalism and mass communications,
expressed surprise at the apparent apathy of New Zealanders when faced with
increased commercialism in so many aspects of life, especially public
Not everyone is apathetic
Many people do feel stunned into silence by the seemingly unstoppable
avalanche of changes in this country, but some people are working very hard
to maintain good public service broadcasting which offers informed comment
and lively debate. I interviewed two of these people - Robert Clarkson and
Taking action to defend public radio
In the eighties when the Concert Programme was threatened with sponsorship
Robert was involved in The Canterbury Friends of the Concert Programme.
When the government began making noises in the early nineties about selling
public radio or putting out programmes on commission to private providers
Denis Dutton called a public meeting in Christchurch, and a group called
New Zealand Friends of National Radio was formed. Denis was interviewed on
national radio and hundreds of people from around the country joined up.
The result was a group of several thousand people around New Zealand who
were concerned about the state of public broadcasting. The group, now
called The New Zealand Friends of Public Broadcasting (NZFPB) continues to
work to maintain our right to non-commercial radio and to improve
Aims of NZFPB
The aim of the group is: 'to mobilise public opinion so that the unique
nature and quality of public service, non-commercial radio in New Zealand
is extended to include one television channel.' New Zealand is the only
western democracy that does not have a non-commercial public television
channel available to citizens.
On a recent visit to Australia Robert was impressed by the quality of news
available in a selection of media. He was able to read from his choice of
quality newspapers, such as the Melbourne Age, the Sydney Morning Herald,
and The Australian, listen to good radio service and watch a number of
television channels, including commercial stations offering good news
programmes. This country has far less to offer - in Robert's view, because
of its involvement with the far right philosophies, and the constant
Robert's commitment to the organisation
Robert was a foundation member and was made the treasurer. When the group
bought a computer and housed it at his home his role trebled to secretary,
treasurer and editor of the newsletter. He produces excellent newsletters,
including articles from people closely involved in broadcasting and media
comment, like Tom Frewen, Paul Smith, Joe Atkinson and Rhys Jones. He has
also become a regular spokesperson for the group, being involved in high
level discussions with people in broadcasting.
The cost of a non-commercial TV channel
The New Zealand public has been clamouring for a non-commercial channel for
years. The response from the authorities has always been that it was too
expensive for such a small country.
Jenny Shipley as Minister of State Owned Enterprises earlier this year
stated this view yet again. When her office was asked what the cost of
this channel would be they had no figures available.
Chris Anderson, Chief Executive Officer at TVNZ put the cost at between $80
and $100 million a year to run such a channel. More recently TVNZ has
stated that the cost has risen to $140 million. The commercial channel,
even with its advertising revenue, costs $100 million.
New Zealand on Air
In 1989 with the passing of the Broadcast Act the licence fee has no longer
funded only public broadcasting. The licence fees are collected by the New
Zealand Broadcasting Commission, now known as New Zealand on Air. The
money is distributed by this body. The budget for 1996/7 was $96 million.
The cost of collection and administration amounted to $11 million. Of the
remaining $85 million television receives nearly half and Radio New Zealand
$19.4 million. $12.7 million is paid to Te Mangai Pahi for Maori
broadcasting. As the preservation of the language has been promised by the
Government surely there should be direct government funding of this group.
A case for this has been established by the Privy Council and the Court of
New Zealand on Air funds half the locally made television programmes.
These programmes are made by private providers, and the privatisation,
which was supposed to cut costs in so many areas, again results in higher
If New Zealand on Air was disbanded the administration costs could be
reduced and the saving used towards the cost of a non-commercial
An additional $20.00 on the licence fee would bring in a further $18
million dollars towards the non-commercial channel.
One possible option would be for a non-commercial channel to present its
own programming from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. and carry the BBC World feed for the
Why is the non-commercial channel so important?
In the Editorial of the Newsletter for June 1997 Robert compiled the list
of complaints from members' letters:
* the placement and intrusive nature of advertisements
* the incessant use and length of promos
* voice-overs intruding over programme credits
* news up-dates during the evening, though this is a misnomer
* companies sponsoring current affairs programmes
* the hyped-up claims made for forthcoming programmes or series
* self-promotion of channels
* advertisements that sound louder than programmes.
Given this list it is small wonder that viewers want a non-commercial
Predominance of advertising
With seventeen minutes per hour of advertising, often much louder than the
programme, many people turn the sound off during the advertisements and
read, converse, or make a cup of tea or coffee. Others record the
programme on video so that when they watch it they can fast-forward past
the advertisements. This surely is not in the advertisers' best interests,
but it is the logical outcome of advertisement overload. And while we
ignore the advertisements we pay for them in the extra cost of the goods we
buy - on average $12 per week per household.
The heavy load of advertising is taken away from programme time. The
programmes become the enticement to keep the viewer there for the next lot
of commercials. Television is becoming just a series of commercials
interrupted by programmes.
The emphasis on advertising revenue is resulting in a lot of programming to
the lowest common denominator - the dumbing down of television.
People turning to other media
National Radio is achieving high ratings, especially for the programmes
which deal with issues in depth. Many people want more than
Libraries and newspapers report healthy readership.
The growth of interest in the Internet has hurt television as men aged 25
to 55 go off at prime time to be on the Internet. It has made millions of
dollars difference to the advertising spent on television in the USA. The
Internet allows freedom and choice and for some people largely replaces
television. Although there is junk on the Internet, the surfer is in
control and chooses what is viewed.
The growth of video shops is further evidence of people moving away from
television to entertainment of their choice.
Rhys Jones comments on the influence of the advertisers
Rhys Jones in a recent newsletter of NZFPB commented that while the
programmes become dumb and forgettable the commercials become more
glamorous and memorable.
He also emphasized that any claims from television staff that they give the
public what it wants are false. They aim instead to give the advertisers
what they want. Ratings are taken, but there is no opportunity to comment.
Even when it was clear that the public wanted Horizon television to
continue the executives disregarded public opinion as advertisers wanted a
channel for the young to advertise products that the young would buy.
There is no choice available by switching channels as they tend all to show
the same type of programme at the same hour.
Non commercial television struggles against consumerism
Most of us have thought of the BBC as a giant among the media, but even the
BBC is cost cutting and struggling to keep up its services. Many of us
care about having programmes chosen for quality to extend viewers'
horizons, not to please sponsors' prejudices and preferences. We grow
increasingly irritated by the predominance of advertisements. If we want
better services we need to be better informed about the real situation and
the work of NZFPB.
Check out NZFPB Website
To learn more about NZFPB look at:
Join in the discussion and better still join this group which is working
hard inconspicuously and successfully to improve public broadcasting in
Share your views on the Backchat
Conversation about what is on television tends to draw strong views
wherever people sit and talk. Please take time to share your views with
readers on the Backchat. We look forward to lively discussion.
Read Part 2 of
this article - an interview with Denis Dutton.