Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

5th December 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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and goodbye Max TV. The rest of the country was this week examining its feelings on the occasion of Jim Bolger's resignation as Prime Minister; or contemplating the spectacle of an an angry tractor convoy from Taranaki, a former all Black captain at its head.

But among our people this week - Christ, I've heard that phrase before somewhere - emotions were running high. On Tuesday afternoon, it was announced that, after four years broadcasting, and a few years before that of getting things off the ground, Max TV's UHF frequency and broadcast gear had been sold to the TVNZ subsidiary BCL. Max the music channel would cease broadcasting at midnight the following day.

I found myself involved shortly after the announcement, when I was asked to interview the co-owners of the station, Kevin Black and Geoff Thorpe, live on Max. The interview brought out a lot of good stuff, but I'd have to say they weren't entirely honest with me.

On the issue of who-approached-who, they revealed that TVNZ's [] head of television, Neil Roberts, had called the week before, but neglected to add that they'd had the frequency up for sale for some time.

Their press release cited looming reinvestments in digital technology as the main reason for bailing out of the business, when in reality existing debts in the hundreds of thousands would have had more to do with it. So Black and Thorpe were very much imparting their own spin. But hey, so was everybody else.

BCL's brief press release, for example, claimed it had acquired the frequency, "following the decision by Max Entertainment Limited to close its Auckland-based youth music channel, Max TV", which wasn't exactly true either.

And the proposition in the same release that TVNZ suddenly needed to buy the frequency so it could get into digital television is absurd too. Digital television is a big buzzword at the moment, but the fact is nobody will actually be doing it until the next millennium. The gear to do it is barely available now.

The preference of the owners seems to have been to sell the channel, which had apparently begun to trade at a small profit, as a going concern. TVNZ didn't want it. Fair enough. But if TVNZ really just wanted to get the frequency in the bank for later on, it could have leased it to Max in the interim. It would have brought in a little revenue, and it might have kept alive some content for when digital compression makes it possible to broadcast up to eight channels on where once there was room for one.

TV bandwidth will get very cheap within the next decade. BCL is already experimenting with microwave, Sky has debuted direct satellite broadcasting and next Monday the government is auctioning off six huge chunks of radio spectrum regarded as ideal for the transmission of high-definition digital TV. Even my Internet provider is gearing up to do microwave TV.

Bandwidth will be plentiful - and it'll be content, especially low cost structure content like Max TV, which will be quite sought-after.

The word is that TVNZ really wants the the frequency in order to get back into regional TV, the business it exited in order to do MTV. The Australian company Prime Television is apparently gearing up for a five-city regional network, and TVNZ may be reacting to the threat of competition in the same way it did when TV3 [] launched its youthy-style venture, TV4.[]

We tend to forget that MTVNZ was not conceived as a response to Max - Max was just caught in the crossfire as TVNZ made a panic reaction to TV4. Neil Roberts said in the paper this week that he didn't consider Max as competition for his own music channel. Why all the fuss then? Well, for a start you'd have to be very naive to believe that the closure of Max doesn't constitute a significant commercial boost for MTV.

And more to the point, Neil Roberts started this. Back when MTV launched he had several fits of chest-beating in which he clearly did identify Max as the enemy, and in which he loudly predicted that it would collapse within a month.

In a situation where a little diplomacy would have gone a long way, Roberts had only bluster. Perhaps he was pissed off that he hadn't been able to strike an acceptable price to buy Max itself. Whatever. Perhaps he didn't understand the role Max was playing. Whatever. If he wonders why he's the bad guy now, he should listen to his own tapes.

But should he be the bad guy at all? After all, nobody held a gun to the heads of Messrs Black and Thorpe, nobody made them sell. And they'll walk away with the change from somewhere between one and two million dollars - which admittedly may not be all that much by the time everybody's held their hands out. Staff at Max probably won't get a payout beyond the two weeks' wages deposited in their accounts just before the announcement.

The staff had no contracts to be paid out of, and they didn't get paid much anyway. It's easy to criticise that from the comfort of a state-owned enterprise which was created with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, but it doesn't really surprise me.

We suffered some of the same problems in independent publishing at Planet magazine, and we never had employment contracts either. When that fell over I was just glad that I wasn't one of the people who was financially liable, because that story still hasn't ended for the people who were. So if Thorpe and Black got scared, and "sold out" I can't really blame them.

Neither did most people in an unprecedented night of television on Wednesday, when Neil Roberts was Public Enemy Number One and a massive sense of grievance hung in the air like the smell of cannabis and made some people just as crazy.

The evening began pretty well, but by the end, there were some dumb things being said and done. Eventually, Chris Knox's 'Not Given Lightly' trailed away into black and the video signal cut out, which was mildly shocking - like a respirator being unplugged or something.

It was done. Which is why I'm extremely disturbed to hear that names were being taken, and that people will be held to account for what they said and did while they were emotional and addled by alcohol, that some people can forget ever working in TV again. I sincerely hope that this is not the case, and if it is, that sanity is restored. If Neil Roberts really wants to play the corporate thug, that's the right way to go about it. It would go a long way if he was to step forward and declare the grudges won't be held.

Whatever the politics, and no matter what the rights and wrongs, it has been a thoroughly bad look for a state-owned enterprise to be found anywhere near the demise of what had become a community station for alternative Auckland.

Although it wasn't always great and sometimes it was pretty bad, Max is a huge loss to the sector it served. The onus, inevitably, falls on MTVNZ to fill the gap. Although there are huge tracts of the current MTV schedule which could go and be not missed by anyone, I don't think the gap can or will be filled immediately. Havoc has shown that MTV can make excellent new television which isn't just another job from the TVNZ sausage machine, but that's a different sort of programming.

The former Max staff seem pretty motivated right now, and they may yet get something else together, but they'll run into the same problems. Independent broadcasting is really hard, especially if you even look like competing with the big guys. Technology is going to sharply cut the kind of big fixed costs which helped kill Max but not for a few years yet.

The issue which needs another look is NZ On Air. It's not true to say that Max never got any NZ On Air money - the New Zealand videos it showed were at least partly funded by NZ On Air. But it was never eligible for funding for its own productions because it didn't reach all of New Zealand. Indeed, it was never going to be able to.

Yet it seems crazy that you can get broadcasting fee money to make programmes for one per cent of the population - and, although I'm not quibbling at their right to the money, that's the case with, say, programmes for the disabled - but not for broadcast to more than a third of the people in the country. It's not just Max - TV4 can't get funding to subtitle its programmes because it's only available in the main centres. It just doesn't make sense, and maybe when everybody has calmed down that's the issue was can address. So thanks, Max


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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