Is this the Death of PBS (Public Broadcasting Services)?
FAREWELL TO BROADCASTING CORPORATION OF NIUE
It was a fairly straight forward innocuous announcement – the national broadcaster will turn-off at mid-day on Wednesday 12 July its television transmission on the analogue channel. It urged viewers to switch to the digital service, pay the fee, in order “to avoid disappointment”.
To a mere handful of people, it signalled the end of a unique and important period of public service broadcasting on the island. Of course there was no official announcement to that effect – none was expected, at least not from the person calling the shots Wayne Harris-Daw, currently the man with the Midas touch who has been given the task of turning the operation into a cash cow.
For an organisation that deals on a daily basis with the dissemination of information and news, there has been a woeful lack of details on where Wayne Harris-Daw and the Premier are taking the island’s radio and television services. Fresh off the plane and eager to get his hands on BCN – a wish expressed some years earlier to former manager of BCN Patrick Lino – Wayne appeared on TV Niue to advise all and sundry that the organisation he had just inherited was about to enter a period of ‘exciting new development’.
Almost overnight the island found out exactly what he meant. Wayne launched his ‘period of exciting development’ by foisting on a gobsmacked incredulous community his wife Toni and her side-kick Vise Ahosivi and their Morning Show on radio. The island was about to be introduced to and to endure a daily dosage of Hollywood Gossip and Horoscopes and other such nauseating suburban delight. There didn’t seem to be any format or structure or indeed raison d’etre for the Morning Show. It became painfully obvious to anyone who has any knowledge of broadcasting that Toni and side-kick Vise may have a role in radio, but it is not in front of a microphone – not without sending them back to the on-air presentation school for a basic course in the art and craft of broadcasting. Side-kick could benefit from a crash course in Vagahau Niue and elocution.
Flushed with the excitement of having a new toy in the cot, Wayne cast aside any caution to jump straight into the mix himself by co-hosting the afternoon show, but not all the time though. When he leaves the island in order to fulfil his contractual obligations of three weeks on, two weeks off, his co-host was left to dog-paddle on her own.
Sources close to BCN at that time say that these exciting new developments for radio were all hatched and driven by Wayne. No consultation with those who are about to receive. Quite understandable really; the Premier is well known for his intolerance for those who do not toe the line, as 20% of public servants have discovered.
At a special by-invitation gathering at BCN, Wayne and his team announced the launching of a new multi-channel television service which was going to catapult TV Niue into the digital age. Significantly though, nothing meaningful was forthcoming on improving local content. In any case why would anyone want to have more local content when you can have access to no less than 12 channels of programming, but first though there was the small matter of a set-top box and a subscription.
So what is to happen to the Broadcasting Corporation of Niue, an organisation which was created during the Rex Administration and has survived up till now? Could it continue to exist in some shape or form or was it only a matter of time before BCN met its demise? Probably the latter. Without significant support from the state coffers, without properly trained staff [one journalist doesn’t quite cut it], BCN as we know it was doomed.
When BCN was created in the late 1980’s it was clearly understood by the then Secretary to Government Terry Chapman and Premier Sir Robert Rex that it was important to figuratively place the public service broadcaster mid-way between the government and the people, responsible to both yet a creature of neither.
If BCN was to contribute to the process of democracy the government needed its services to inform the people of its policies, but it was also important to receive the community’s reaction to those policies. The island needed a mirror to reflect upon itself, to celebrate its achievements, to correct its mistakes, to promote its language and culture and to close ranks when tragedy strikes.
When it came to funding it was understood that the newly established Corporation was going to rely heavily on the public purse if it is to serve its stated purpose. A small television licence fee was introduced to help alleviate the total dependence on government funding.
On the passing of Sir Robert there was no shortage of attempts by the new crop of leaders to wrestle control of BCN away from a Board of Directors but were effectively stopped by legislation. Over the years the fortunes of BCN waxed and waned with each new broadcasting minister. The one thing that did not change was the Corporation’s obligation to serve the community with news and current affairs, live broadcasts and even talk-back shows …proper talk-back with live on-air discussions. If anything unusual was happening anywhere on the island, the chances were that that event will be relayed live on radio and the same event would receive full coverage on the evening television news.
In time BCN became a model for other small public broadcasting services or PBS in the region to emulate. An opportunity for a first-hand look was provided when a conference of regional public service broadcasters which included New Zealand and Australia was held here in the early 1990’s. For a time the island and BCN experienced the satisfaction of being touted as a great example of what could be done with a small but well trained staff and appropriate equipment.
Sadly, BCN’s downward spiral began when it could no longer compete effectively for the government’s limited resources. The organisation’s small but highly trained staff started drifting elsewhere. Austerity became the in-word for all government funding. BCN had to make do with what it was given. In consequence, corners were cut, compromises were made, staff training went out the window as did urgent equipment replacement.
Staff morale plunged to an all time low. Attempts to recruit people with potential to be trained in the art and craft of broadcasting proved elusive. When social media arrived with a vengeance BCN’s role as the prime news source for the island took a nose dive; the organisation was simply not equipped to face the challenges posed by new technology. Largely through circumstances that were not of its own choosing, BCN was haemorrhaging from within. Enter stage right: The Premier and his Knight with The Golden Touch.
In the absence of any available information from anyone, our prediction is that BCN and its Board of Directors is going, or has gone already, to be replaced by a State Owned broadcasting company under the direct control of Wayne Harris-Daw and the Minister of Broadcasting. The new company will probably have a Board of Directors but the real control will be elsewhere. It will entirely be the prerogative of the broadcasting company on whether it will fulfil some of the obligations of a public service broadcaster or to ignore it altogether. PBS ideals can sometimes get in the way of a purely commercial venture.
Where once government accepted its obligation to tell the people what it is doing and to do so without cost, it appears that the new broadcaster has no such intention. If the people of Niue want to find out what their government is planning for the island or just to know what is going on, then pay your subscription of $800 per annum. .. and if you’re lucky, the gossip on the Kardashian’s substantial behinds will be gratis.
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For those who are advocating for one Free to Air television channel will be disappointed to learn that this is not likely to happen. Premier Sir Toke Talagi has posted on social media saying ‘We have moved away from the free meal tickets’. With recent generous increases in public servants pay packets, it is your choice, said the Premier on where you spend it. In biblical terms, the Minister of Finance giveth and the Minister of Broadcasting taketh away.