Maori TV has in many ways been a success story. They have managed to avoid the culture of excess that their predecessor Aotearoa TV had. They have managed to capture ANZAC Day in a way no other broadcaster has. They had some of the best debates in the election campaign, and I understand their election night coverage was very good. Native Affairs is a must watch show for those interested in politics, and they had great Rugby World Cup coverage.
But there is one big elephant in the room. The elephant is that almost nobody is watching them. And when we invest $50 million a year into them, it is an elephant that should not be ignored.
Farrar goes on to explain that on Wednesday last week there were, according to Neilsen ratings, less than 4000 people tuned in at the lowest point and around 20,000 at the highest point. For a $50m investment from the government, DPF doesn’t think this is good enough. That’s fair enough, one of Maori TV’s central aims should be to increase viewership, but they have obligations beyond gaining mass appeal.
Maori TV’s central aims should be 1) the preservation of Maori culture, especially Maori language 2) increasing accessibility to and understanding of Maori culture and 3) creating a platform for Maori to project their perspective. Ratings tie into these aims, especially 1 and 2, but ratings aren’t the be all and end all. S8(1) of the Maori Television Service Act 2003 states that the principal function of Maori TV is to is to “promote” te reo Maori and tikanga Maori and enrich “New Zealand’s society, culture and heritage”. There is not a ratings imperative in the Act.
With the above in mind, Maori TV should not be measured against ratings alone. Maori TV has, arguably, done more than any other initiative to protect, preserve and promote Maori culture.
Maori TV offers unique programming. Native Affairs, indisputably New Zealand’s leading current affairs show, is given prime time billing. On that note, Willie Jackson’s Newsbites (a political show) is also given a prime time slot. Local and international documentaries are given 8.30pm time slots, as are many art house films and local films like the Topp Twins. Politics, documentaries and art house films aren’t, in my opinion, ratings winners. However, they do serve to enrich New Zealand society, culture and – most importantly – they educate New Zealanders (or at least those New Zealanders who are watching). This is consistent with Maori TV’s statutory obligations.
As an aside, some believe ratings are misleading. It's certianly true that significant criticisms exist. Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, I cannot accept that there were so little people watching Maori TV last Wednesday. Every Maori and Maori whanau I know watches Maori TV as their main channel. I don’t watch much TV, but most of what I watch is on Maori TV. I also watch a lot of Maori TV programs on their website. Needless to say, ratings to do not measure viewers who watch a program through the internet. This is a significant flaw, television watchers are increasingly turning to the internet – especially young people - and the ratings companies aren't measuring this.
Recently I suggested that Maori TV may be in line for a funding cut or freeze. This would be consistent with the government’s attitude towards Maori funding and the government’s broadcasting ideology. The cynic in me would say that DPF is softening the ground for cuts, but that is probably a stretch too far. It’s not as if his audience need to be encouraged to support cuts at Maori TV. Having said that, in 2009 BERL found that 84% of New Zealanders thought Maori TV should be a permanent part of the broadcasting landscape.
It would be a shame to see funding at Maori TV frozen or cut. They operate on a shoe string budget as it is. The government only provides 16.6m in direct funding to cover operational costs and this amount has not changed since 2004. In Maori TV's words "the cumulative impact of inflation on our cost structure makes it increasingly difficult to sustain the current levels of delivery, continue to enhance the service and keep pace with the new technological developments in the television industry". Programming costs are covered by Te Mangai Paho and, but to a lesser degree, New Zealand on Air.
I’d hate to see shows like Wairua, Kai Time on the Road and Code dropped. I’d be gutted to see Native Affairs dropped or Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day coverage scaled back and New Zealand would be worse off if Maori TV couldn't do events like Rise Up Christchurch again. Maori TV provides New Zealand with a valuable service - there's no need for cuts.