Saturday, 16 July 2005

CTV blunders in Local News decision

Okay, first a bit of history... Regional/Local television has had a chequered past in New Zealand. A number of stations and companies have come & gone since local operators began UHF broadcasts.

Dunedin's Channel 58 was the first local station in the country to make it on air in mid-1991, followed around a week later by Joanana McMenamin's original CTV in Christchurch.

Regional news broadcasts were previously the domain of State TV, however a major gap opened up in the market when they canned their 4 regional news breakouts altogether (The Top Half (out of Auckland), Today Tonight (Wellington), The Mainland Touch (Christchurch), and The South Tonight (Dunedin).

State TV did have another go a few years later, by taking control of Horizon Pacific Television (HPTV), which had stations in Auckland (ATV), Hamilton (Coast to Coast), Wellington (Capital), Dunedin (Southern), and later buying Christchurch's CTV.

However, State TV and Neil Roberts panicked when CanWest managed to rejig their frequencies to create a 2nd semi-national network, to launch their new youth channel, TV4. HPTV was dumped (despite showing signs of being on the right track) in favour of launching MTV into New Zealand as a spolier (albeit one largely sourced via satellite from MTV-UK).

Now, decades later, the Government are finally coming to the party, with a small package of funding for local television. (Although to be fair, when I say "coming to the party", what I really mean is they're bringing a couple of bags of Ready-Salted Crisps and a half-eaten tub of dip ;-)

The new funding announced recently translates to less than $1 million a year spread across all the local stations... compare that with around $40 million a year for the over-hyped and under-watched Maori Television. While Australia gets SBS, providing a broad range of multicultural programming, New Zealand's Labour Government funds a "politically correct" service, while largely ignoring the country's other large ethnic populations in terms of State TV funding).

Anyways, some money's on the way, and a positive start's better than nothing. NZ on Air are still consulting on how to allocate the money. I can only hope that common sense prevails, and they don't simply divide the small pot equally amongst the 12 or so groups calling themselves "regional television broadcasters".

In reality, less than half a dozen of these stations are providing what can reasonably be described as a local service, and even some of those are turning out product which borders on "tin-shed tv". Dunedin's Channel 9 is one of the few stations in the country turning out a full-service local news broadcast every weeknight.
Southland TV also broadcast a nightly news/sports/lifestyle show in Invercargill, although their reporters seem to have an aversion to compiling network-style voiced tracks, seeming to prefer to broadcast raw footage instead. (Southland TV actually broadcasts on VHF in the south, and nationwide on Sky Digital if you pay at least $45 a month for Sky's grossly overpriced "Startup" service)

CTV did have a local news service up until last year, when they ditched it in favour of a basic "CTV News Line" headlines service, plus a few stories in Southern Week, their weekly news in review show compiled in association with Channel 9. Now the station's cancelled both Southern Week and the Headlines service altogether, preferring to focus on its Shopping and Lifestyle programming and new Tourist Channel.

Huh?! A local channel without local news and information?! Surely local news is the reason d'etre for any local television station?! It's baffling that in a South Island city with a population of over 338,000, CTV believes there is no call for a local news service.

At one stage, 3 tv stations were providing a nightly news broadcast in Christchurch... an excellent quality programme from the local Prime TV crew, along with a passable one from CTV-FTN, and a slightly dodgy one from CHTV. Now that the current incarnation of CTV has the market to itself, it's decided it can't produce even a 15 minute local news wrap.

Now, I accept that local tv news is a relatively expensive beast to produce. However, it should be the Flagship show of any local station, and as such should be accepted to some extent as "a loss leader".

Westpac and CanWest both understood this, in continuing TV3's 6pm and Nightline news broadcasts during times of an extreme shortage of money. Canning one or both of TV3's news shows would have saved millions of dollars, at a time when neither shows were bringing in huge ratings. However, they understood the station needed News, both as a flagship product, and to help attract viewers to their evening programming.

CTV's management are also claiming there is little or no demand in Christchurch for a locally produced news service. I find these claims highly dubious. Maybe the public of Christchurch are sick of "being burnt" by their local stations, having seen the most transformations of any tv market in the country. However, I see no reason why a quality locally produced news broadcast, carefully scheduled and promoted, would not attract a large and loyal audience in Christchurch.

There are murmurs that CTV News could rise from the dead around December (presumably once NZ on Air's money comes through). That may be too little too late for the people of Canterbury.

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  1. Ken Westmoreland Says:

    Channels like SBS in Australia and Channel 4 in the UK have moved away from 'ethnic' programming because there are now dedicated pay-TV channels that can do it better.

    That has meant that they are able to concentrate on English language public service broadcasting - something Horizon Pacific came very near to doing in New Zealand.

    The good thing about SBS and Channel 4 is that they have such a varied output. They have documentaries, as well as stuff like South Park.

    There isn't much point in having stand-alone regional stations unless they have regional programming. Apart from the scheduling, branding, and advertising, what was so 'regional' about Horizon Pacific? Far better to have regional opt-outs like TVNZ did.

    Nevertheless, distinct regional branding is important. Sadly, ITV in the UK has largely abandoned this, except in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and regional news in some areas has been axed - the East Midlands now gets its news from Birmingham in the West Midlands instead of Nottingham.

    Luckily, we've still got the BBC to fill the void!