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NZ electioneering leaves TVNZ at 'serious commercial disadvantage'

Monday 21st May 2012

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State-owned broadcaster Television New Zealand wants to ditch its legislated obligation to provide an advertising platform in the lead-up to a general election, saying the low-rating broadcasts go against its new remit to act as a commercially successful company.

The broadcaster says the opening and closing addresses for the 2011 general election attracted significantly lower ratings than the corresponding nights a year earlier, with total audience across the three nights an average 20 percent lower.

"This places TVNZ at a serious commercial disadvantage to its competitors," TVNZ general counsel Brent McAnulty said in a written submission to Parliament's justice and electoral select committee, which is holding an inquiry into the 2011 general election. "As a wholly commercial operator, the Part 6 obligations (of the Broadcasting Act) are no longer appropriate, and do not reflect a level playing field."

TVNZ wants to shed its obligation to broadcast the opening and closing addresses of parties contesting the election, saying the requirement doesn't fit its new commercial model. If that doesn't fly with policymakers, the broadcaster contends its rivals should face similar obligations, and that media companies should be allowed to decide when the broadcasts are made.

"It is no longer appropriate for a commercial entity such as TVNZ to be required to provide coverage free of charge when such coverage affects its revenue and when its competitors face no such obligation," McAnulty said. TVNZ says audiences are "increasingly disinterested" in the opening and closing statements, because of the sophistication of political advertising, the increased use of social media to communicate messages, wider sources of information for voters to tap into, and a noisier political landscape with more parties.

The broadcaster shed its dual role providing public service broadcasting while making a commercially acceptable return after the National-led government won office in 2008. The broadcaster has focused on growing its online viewership, and is poised to make a fatter return to the government this year as advertising revenues continue to recover.

McAnulty said state-owned Radio New Zealand was a better fit to provide free broadcast time for electioneering, because it is bound by a public radio charter, and "most importantly, RNZ remains fully funded by the government." The two broadcasters that were once stable-mates under the New Zealand Broadcasting Corp were now "chalk and cheese" and it made no sense for a commercial broadcaster to be bound by the legislated obligation, he said.

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