The death of Stratos Television last week is a sad, bad story – and we have not seen the end of it.

At 11:00am on Friday, 23 December, Stratos Television vanished quietly from the programme menus offered by the Sky, Freeview, and Telstra Clear distribution networks.

Stratos was just over four years old – an off-spring from New Zealand’s first non-commercial, regional television channel, Auckland-based Triangle Television. It was conceived as the gateway for Triangle, and other allied regional channels, to achieve safe passage through the transition from analogue to digital transmission, and as a vehicle for delivering a multi-cultural mix of New Zealand and international programmes constructed to meet the needs of major ethnic groups within the country.

With its passing, we are losing one of the most significant options for sustaining the delivery of the public broadcasting services that New Zealand’s major, commercially-driven, free-to-air television networks are increasingly unable and unwilling to provide.

The demise of Stratos also puts Auckland’s regional channel at risk. Triangle will continue to broadcast key elements of the Stratos programme content to its Auckland viewers on UHF channel 41 while its community trust owners seek other ways to survive the digital switchover in 2013.

The Stratos death notice on the channel’s website simply states that “transmission costs coupled with the economic environment and general lack of support at all levels has meant that it simply could not survive.” There is much more to the story than that.

As a contributor to programmes on Stratos, and a long-term advocate for regional television, I don’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs of the channel’s problems, but I can say Stratos did not die of lack of support from its audience.

The channel was reaching a cumulative audience of more than a million New Zealanders every month, and the numbers were growing steadily. Its website is now filled with 46 pages of supportive messages from viewers mourning its loss. The National Business Review on-line coverage of the channel’s closure attracted more than 90 responses, mostly supportive, within 48 hours.

Stratos did not die from lack of community support. In partnership with Triangle, it had built a relationship with more than 30 distinct ethnic and cultural communities across the Auckland region, and, through them, throughout the country. 25 Auckland-based individuals and organizations were directly involved in funding and creating special interest programmes for screening on Triangle and Stratos in the last year.

Stratos did not die from lack of staff support. Its full-time staff of six, supported by community volunteers, pumped out two TV channels, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from a little villa in Grey Lynn. Last year, they produced 250 hours of first-run local programme content, at an average cost of $2,500 an hour. It costs NZ On Air nearly $74,000 an hour to fund comparable, special interest programme content on one of the major television networks. Sure, Triangle and Stratos produce no-frills TV – but a substantial number of New Zealand viewers seem ready to accept substance over style.

In my view, Stratos died – and other small, and not-so-small, free-to-air TV channels will also die – in the bureaucratically-botched transition to digital broadcasting because public broadcasting policy is no longer aligned with public need, or the multi-media realities of the digital age.

The cracks started showing back in 1997, when non-commercial regional television was introduced. It was supposed to provide coverage of local news and events, a local voice and perspective, a diverse range of content and formats for different audiences and interests, and facilitate “wide technical, cultural and social access to broadcasting” – all very laudable aims, re-addressing tasks the increasingly centralized and commercialized TVNZ found irksome. A new area of public broadcasting service had been defined. Unfortunately, no additional public funding had been provided.

It was 2005 before the Government recognized the problem and funded NZ On Air to provide some support for regional television. It was set at $1.5 million per annum – less than the sum provided for about the same number of community radio stations – and has remained frozen at that level ever since. The maximum sum provided to any individual regional channel has never been more than the cost of two and a half hours of documentaries on a major network.

Regional television was plumped firmly in the too hard basket by both NZ On Air and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Two research reports commissioned by NZ On Air from independent analysts Paul Norris and Brian Pauling - on the digital future and its own performance - have studiously avoided any mention of this troubled sector of television broadcasting.

Regional television was also tail-end Charley in the MoCH consultations on the digital switch over – a process that contributed to the problems of Stratos. From the outset, Stratos was seen as the vehicle that could facilitate the transition of regional channels from analogue to digital transmission, and – like TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 – a fresh inducement to encourage viewers to make switch. In July 2007, Kordia, the state-owned transmission provider, announced it was “partnering” with Triangle Television to launch Stratos on the Freeview platform. It was a step that enabled Triangle to leverage Sky into making a similar arrangement.

Two years later, the MoCH finally initiated consultations with regional TV broadcasters on options for making the transition to digital transmission. It canvassed the concept of using Stratos as a means of aggregating their local programmes for nationwide transmission so they could maintain a relationship with local viewers switching from analogue to digital reception during the transition to DSO. After the consultation, regional broadcasters were advised that the Cabinet was prepared to commit up to $600,000 a year towards the satellite costs of “the regional content broadcaster” until DSO was completed in 2013.

In October last year, regional broadcasters were suddenly informed that the Cabinet had changed its mind. NZ On Air is now funded to offer up to $70,000 to each regional broadcaster to help them find their own way into the new digital world. To date, two regional broadcasters have accepted. The low take-up is hardly surprising, given that the digital switchover will quadruple their transmission costs – their major expense – if their programmes are to be accessible on all the digital platforms their local audiences are likely to adopt.

Now, Stratos is gone. It is a sad, bad story – and we have not heard the end of it.

Declaration of interest: David Beatson has been host of programmes on Stratos and Triangle Television, acted as an advocate for the New Zealand Regional Television Broadcasters Association, and is a former chairman of NZ On Air.

Comments (18)

by Graeme Edgeler on December 29, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

At 11:00am on Friday, 23 December, Stratos Television vanished quietly from the programme menus offered by the Sky, Freeview, and Telstra Clear distribution networks.

I still have the menu. For the moment, anyway.

I've always watched more of the international stuff on the "minor" channels. From a selfish perspective, given the way TVNZ7 is going ... surely it would be possible to cheaply air a digital channel that only airs stuff like ABC World News, The NewsHour that networks have paid for already but don't have space on their own schedules to put on?

by Andrew R on December 30, 2011
Andrew R

Is Stratus the channem that showed Al Jazerra?

by David Beatson on December 30, 2011
David Beatson

Graeme: The real problem is that transmission and distribution costs are going through the roof with the transition to digital broadcasting. To be universally accessible to viewers today, a channel needs to maintain its existing analogue transmission [for the 20% of viewers yet to go digital], be on the Freeview satellite platform, The Freeview HD [terrestrial] platform, the Sky platform, Telstra Clear cable, and provide an on-line service for those who adopt high-speed broadband as their preferred communications mode. We are moving into a multi-media, multi modal environment - and it's going to be increasingly expensive and difficult for small, NZ-based free-to-air broadcasters to meet one of the fundamental public broadcasting service objectives: near universal accessibility.

Andrew: You are correct. The provision of complementary international news services - like Al Jazeera - was one of the ways that Stratos supplemented the free-to-air diet provided by the major networks.

    

by David Beatson on December 30, 2011
David Beatson

jb: in the analogue era, you could receive free-to-air TV broadcasts via your home aerial without a set-top box. To receive most free-to-air ,digital TV broadcasts you now need a box to pull in either the Sky or Freeview platforms - or a new TV set that's equipped for digital reception from Freeview. Next,with Freeview you have two choices: Freeview DTH [off a satellite] or Freeview HD [off a local ground-based [terrestrial] transmitter]. Some viewers in areas where analogue transmission has been poor also have the option of receiving their TV programmes via a Telstra Clear cable system. Most people are choosing one of the digital reception options - not two, three or four. However, the free-to-air broadcaster seeking to maximise audience access needs to be transmitting on all systems - including the old analogue system still being used by about 20% of households who've yet to switch to digital reception. Hence, there's a significant multiplication of transmission and distribution cost. I hope that's what you wanted to know...

by Tim Watkin on January 02, 2012
Tim Watkin

We have a "public broadcasting policy?"

I see about as much evidence of that as I do of the yeti. The only policy seemingly in existence at the moment is the 'let's see just how big and dominant Sky can get' policy.

It's just another area where NZ seems to have decided there's no need for substantial media in any form – we're too small a country to sustain a profitbable demand for such a thing, therefore it's not necessary.

by DeepRed on January 03, 2012
DeepRed

I've discussed the possibility of a Royal Commission on the matter with the organiser of the Save TVNZ7 campaign, if TVNZ7 can't be saved. If you remember back to 2006, this full-page letter was published in the Granny by 31 notable signatories. And among them is a Queen's Counsel who could add some heft.

In the meantime, can anyone get the Commerce Commission to look into the Igloo tie-up?

by Frank Macskasy on January 05, 2012
Frank Macskasy

The demise of Stratos, and the imminent canning of TVNZ7 will be the final nails that seals the coffin of public broadcasting. From here on after, it will be Reality shows; cooking programmes; US crime shows that depict the latest atrocity against female victims; and TV "news" that is essentially an extension of Police Ten-7.

The replacement of TVNZ7 with a shopping channel is perhaps thwe most potent symbol of where our society has arrived, circa 2012AD.

I've no doubt that if the old NZBC planners back in the early 1960s had had a glimpse of the future - they would have pulled the plug there and then.

At the same time, we seem to be jumping through hoops not just to commercialise TV and dumb it down as much as feasible - but also providing State-owned content (Heartland TV and Kidzone 24) to SkyTV. Essentially we are giving Rupert Murdoch - that exemplar of business ethics - a taxpayer boost. Noice.

One of my readers (on my blog) shared this link with me; How the badly maimed BBC can stand up to parasitic Sky

It's well worth a read.

There is little hope that this current government will change anything. They are  witless and souless; utterly hopeless in this area; and prove the truism that right wingers know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

It will be up to a Labour/Green government to restore public tv to this country. The old plan of having an advert-free TV1, funded by commercial TV2, may have to be resurrected.

In doing so, a new government must install some mechanism whereby this system is entrenched. It would have been grand had public opinion been as vehemently in favour of retaining TVNZ7 as, say, helping lost penguins and/or condemning  signage on Weliongton's hillsides - but I guess public television was too complicated to retain in the public's collective, 10-second, short-term attention span.

Or, maybe commercial TV should just cut-to-the-chase. If maximum profits (with zero public-interest) are the end-goal, they should just broadcast hard-core pornography and violence. That'll rake in the dollars. As for the "News" - that's already dumbed down as far as we can get it. (Though maybe news anchors can present the  news a-la Lisa Lewis-style?)

Finally; Mr Beatson; our household greatly enjoyed watching your show;  The Beatson Interview. It was old-style, intelligent, no-frills, interviewing; you asked the question; the guest responded with an answer. It was interviewing that  left TV1 and TV3 dead-in-the-dust .

We shall miss it greatly.

As we shall miss Stratos.

 

 

 

by David Beatson on January 07, 2012
David Beatson

Tim: of course we have a public broadcasting policy. TVNZ, Mediaworks, Sky/Prime and the Maori Television Service currently receive government funding of about $125.5 million a year from NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho to produce around 2,476 hours of local content. That is about 23% of the total amount of local content that they screen.

Our television system has the heaviest dependence on advertising revenue, the lowest dependence on government funding, and delivers one of the lowest levels of local content in the developed world. No-one else does television broadcasting the New Zealand Way, and, looking at the results, no wonder.

DR: There’s a petition up and running at http://www.petitiononline.co.nz/petition/rebroadcast-stratos-television-and-secure-the-future-of-public-service-television-in-new-zealand/1399

Frank: Thanks for the kind comment. Triangle continues to screen the interviews – but it’s accessible to Auckland viewers only.

by mudfish on January 08, 2012
mudfish

Our television system has the heaviest dependence on advertising revenue, the lowest dependence on government funding, and delivers one of the lowest levels of local content in the developed world. No-one else does television broadcasting the New Zealand Way,

Is it not largely a function of our size (population, market) that means NZ must accept low local content, more advertising and/or higher cost? It is probably only fair to make comparisons against similar sized nations - How do the small european nations fare - are they swamped by their neighbours?

Or is part of it that there's more english-speaking content available at low cost to us that it's hard for local content to compete (what are the ratings and ad revenue for the of-necessity-lower-budget NZ next top model vs US next top model - sorry, couldn't think of a more cerebral comparison).

Isn't TV losing its importance? Perhaps we'll all have to get used to finding our local content "on demand" - CTV had a site http://www.youtube.com/user/CTVinNZ where you could find their shows. (Apparently there's a new site but it wasn't working for me just now). Not the same though, is it. And doesn't solve the funding for making the programmes.

and, looking at the results, no wonder.

Are you despairing of dumbing down? While TVNZ7 and Stratos have been around (and Prime to a point) there has at least been a variety of things on in the evening.

TVNZ, Mediaworks, Sky/Prime and the Maori Television Service currently receive government funding of about $125.5 million a year from NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho to produce around 2,476 hours of local content.

Sure, these are the broadcasters that show the bulk of the funded programmes, but over 85% of the funding goes to indepedently produced programmes (or am I missing something - how independent are they?)

I'm guessing Tim knows about this funding already - it's just (partly?) paid for next years Q+A - and looking through the lists of what gets funded, it's hard to argue that there's not a good variety of stuff being produced for the money - but the timing of broadcasts doesn't seem to come into the policy.

Sad to see Stratos go. And TVNZ7. Don't know what I'm going to watch now. And when. Maybe I'll follow Claire's lead and turn the tv off for a while.

**********************************************

Just reread the article (thought I'd better refocus rather than get lost in semantics).  - so it's the regional and local flavour tv that's most at risk of being lost with the digital switchover.  Bad news. Just the sort of diversity NZ On Air is there to fund.

But issues of only local importance are by definition, only niche issues and are therefore going to remain in the low budget realm. Is increasingly costly TV the place for them, or does the low cost and reach of websites lend itself better to these issues? Will they soon be one and the same?

by David Beatson on January 08, 2012
David Beatson

MF: Thanks for raising such a set of interesting points.

1]  How do small European nations fare – are they swamped by their neighbours?

Most “small” European nations I know about have publicly-funded broadcasters who specialize in delivering local content. In fact, most countries in the world have publicly-funded broadcasters, because their governments consider local TV content is important.

2] Isn’t TV losing its importance?

No. Viewers are supplementing television with on-line media, but television broadcasting is still the mainstream medium that produces and feeds much of the video content that on-line media re-distributes on demand.

3] Are you despairing of dumbing down?

No – so-called dumbed-down TV still attracts large audiences. My despair is that advertising-funded free-to-air broadcasters operating in an increasingly competitive market are forced to concentrate on the sectors of the population that advertisers want to reach – and that excludes a very large chunk of society.

4] Am I missing something – how independent are they [the independent producers]?

They’re independent business operators – but to access NZ On Air funding, an independent producer has to obtain the support of a broadcaster willing to air the programme. Effectively, the TV channel s are the gatekeepers, determining how any ” independence” will be expressed on air.

5] Does the low cost and reach of websites lend itself better to these[local/niche] issues?

If we are talking about transferring the kind of services that local TV free-to-air broadcast channels can provide to the web, viewers will have to pay their internet service provider for access to the service they previously accessed at no direct cost, beyond the price of the TV set and aerial. Further, at full stretch in 2025, high-speed broadband coverage will only be accessible to 75% of households, if they can afford it.

by mudfish on January 08, 2012
mudfish

And thanks for answering them.

by DeepRed on January 09, 2012
DeepRed

David Beatson:

My despair is that advertising-funded free-to-air broadcasters operating in an increasingly competitive market are forced to concentrate on the sectors of the population that advertisers want to reach – and that excludes a very large chunk of society.

Is it the same kind of 'very large chunk of society' that burnt down half of London? If so, then it's reason to despair indeed.

by David Beatson on January 10, 2012
David Beatson

I don't think many New Zealanders were involved in the destruction of half London - but the large chunk I'm referring to are children, young New Zealanders [many of whom show little interest in the kind of "news" we're being served, and are disengaged from the existing civil, civic and parliamentary processes] and older citizens with interests beyond funeral planning, retirement homes, and pharmaceuticals.

by Mike Bartley on February 07, 2012
Mike Bartley

David, why is the cost of digital broadcast going up? Many more digital channels can be carried on the same bandwidth as one analogue channel. Shouldn't the price of broadcasting be coming down?

by David Beatson on February 08, 2012
David Beatson

Good question Mike. A chunk of capacity released by the digital conversion is being reserved for other non-broadcasting services that will generate the so-called digital dividend, so there's increasing competition for the broadcasting space in the spectrum. Broadcasters'.costs are also increasing because NZers are now receiving their TV by a wider variety of transmission modes as we transit to digital transmission/reception.

Around 21% of TV households still have their old analogue receivers. 79% have "gone digital". Of the digitally converted, 57% have chosen SKY satellite/Telstra Clear cable as their only digital delivery service provider. 26% have chosen Freeview as their only digital service provider. 16% take both SKY and Freeview services. However, Freeview offers two digital options - satellite or terrestrial transmission. Around 15% of digital receiving households have converted to Freeview Terrestrial.

In the transition to digital, a nationwide TV broadcaster needs analogue transmission, Freeview satellite and terrestrial transmission, and transmission via the SKY satellite platform and Telstra Clear cable to reach the broadest possible audience across the country. In the broadband future, they will also need to add that delivery mode to their portfolio.

That's why the nationwide TV broadcaster's transmission costs are sky-rocketing.

 

 

 

 

 

by Mike Bartley on February 11, 2012
Mike Bartley

At least Kordia won't be able to clip the ticket for the broadband.

by Philip Grimmett on March 06, 2012
Philip Grimmett
Hi David. Thanks for your continuing efforts in this matter. My recollection was that the switch over to digital was a going to save money! Is this another pup we have inherited that's defacating on our shoes.
by on June 12, 2012
Anonymous

I would offer one comment about aesthetics. The buy Air Jordan 5 is a great looking shoe, but when I look at the Road Glove I can’t help but feel like something is missing. I think it might be that the sides of the Air Jordan 5 shoe are just too plain. I almost feel like Merrell should be a bit more willing to splash their logo around - the Merrell “M” placed on the outer middle panel might do the trick and also help them to gain a bit more brand recognition (my feeble design attempt below…).

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.