The New Zealand taxpayer has been paying for television content for 50 years — so who should own that content, and should it be given away to anyone who wants to screen it?
That's the question Paul Brennan, general manager of the internet television network Ziln, put to both ICT Minister Steven Joyce and Telecommunications Commissioner Ross Patterson at the Telecommunications and ICT Summit in Auckland earlier this month.
Both the Minister and the Commissioner ducked the question - the former claiming it wasn't his portfolio, and the regulator that it was a decision for policy makers. But it is one that will have to be considered by the government as New Zealand enters the new era of high speed broadband, where as Brennan points out, the cost of television broadcasting is no longer so expensive it requires government backing to ensure television can be delivered to all citizens.
Ziln TV is a fledgling IPTV service that Brennan says took 10 years to develop, before going live nine months ago. It broadcasts 33 channels and regards itself as a niche player, offering a range of programming that appeals to small communities of interest. It currently attracts between 25,000 and 35,000 unique browsers a month, and Ziln TV'sbiggest boon has been TelstraClear offering the company's broadband subscribers unmetered access to Ziln TV (that is, watching video on Ziln doesn't affect subscriber's monthly data cap).
Brennan says the most popular content is home grown, but he can't get access to NZ on Air funded programming that is screened on the traditional television networks - and he is not impressed with the new Heartland channel on Sky TV screening TVNZ's back catalogue: "We could be playing that free to broadband internet users, [rather] than having to sign up to a pay television channel," he says. "It is sort of robbery, it is a denial of access to what you collectively own."
He questions the need for the government to even own TVNZ (although Minister Joyce was quick to point out that the government keeps its State Owned Enterprises at arms length). "I was asking him (Minister Joyce), hoping he would think about what will be the role of these SOE operations like TVNZ. Will companies like us be competing with them for services that aren't so much about egalitarian distribution of broadcasting, that the taxpayer must contribute to make happen? Do they need to be in that business when the new networks are providing opportunities for content providers and distributors to do the same job."
Kordia CEO Geoff Hunt told the Summit audience that the digital penetration (that is subscribers to SkyTV and Freeview) is estimated to be 69 percent of New Zealand households and that penetration increases by five to six percent annually.