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Sky UHF subscribers lose in Maori TV plan

By John Drinnan

Friday 5th September 2003

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Customers for Sky TV's UHF service will lose the CNN channel if the government backs Sky's offer to provide Maori TV with a ready-to-go transmission network.

Last week, Maori Television Service and Te Puni Kokiri looked almost certain to lose their bid to use a transmission network offered by Sky.

A cabinet committee recommended MTS to go ahead using an untested transmission network allocated by the Crown. But those predictions did not take account of politics.

The Sky deal for Maori TV was given a reprieve at Monday's cabinet meeting and officials have been sent away to find a way it can work.

With the foreshore and seabed issue heating up, the government avoided adding a new dimension in its troubled relationship with Maori.

The Sky deal would see Maori TV broadcast on the frequencies now used for CNN on Sky's five channel UHF service.

The CNN channel would close down but would still be available on Sky Digital. Subscriptions would have to be cut on the Sky UHF service.

Sky is offering Maori the network at minimal cost so that Maori do not have to access the UHF channels 35-38 allocated to Maori by the Crown.

Sky has tuned tens of thousands of its UHF decoders and digital set-top boxes into TV sets utilising channels that would pick up channels 35-38.

If MTS transmits on those channels there will be howls of indignation from subscribers. Sky faces a bill of about $11 million costs for sending technicians out to retune subscribers' sets.

Sky also claims there are potential problems with video recorders tuned into TV sets on channels 35-38, where people pick up all their TV signals through their VCR.

The Sky offer faces top-level opposition from Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey and Finance Minister Michael Cullen.

Mr Maharey does not want a public service channel such as MTS to be reliant on Rupert Murdoch-controlled Sky for its transmission.

But the Sky deal would also cut state-owned transmission company BCL out of $3.5 million of additional revenue from servicing a new network.

There are political concerns it would be seen to be adding another barrier to MTS getting on air and another sour note in government relations with Maori

Maori fear the Crown-allocated network would be a dud and create more problems for the beleaguered channel getting to air.

Sky is prepared to sacrifice one of its channels but radio frequency experts say Sky should never have tuned into those channels anyway.

They say Sky's problems and potential issues for non-subscribers with video recorders are being overstated and the channels 35-38 network is no dud.

However, there may be another dimension to what has up until now been a dogmatic stance by government insisting Maori take what they are given.

Industry insiders say there are concerns that in allowing Sky to lease its network, it might leave open a loophole for a Treaty of Waitangi challenge.

Government support for Maori broadcasting is built on a 1995 Privy Council decision that the Crown has an obligation to support the Maori language.

It is understood there is some concern that should MTS go to air on a network supplied by Sky rather than the Crown, it might face demands for additional support, on the technicality the Crown was not meeting its Treaty of Waitangi obligations.

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