TVNZ unveils digital net plans

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- TVNZ will launch two new commercial-free digital channels over the next two years.

The pubcaster announced plans for the 24-hour news and arts and entertainment channels Tuesday after Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey said TVNZ will get an extra NZ$79 million ($52.1 million) in government funding over the next six years to help implement its digital strategy.

"Our investment is aimed at strengthening TVNZ's position as our flagship public television broadcaster," he said. "As well as an increase in local content hours, we will see new content commissioned by TVNZ, more in-depth programs and opportunities for a wider range of audiences to view programs at more accessible times.

"At 3.5% of TVNZ's total operating costs, this is a cost-effective option for bringing our public broadcasting services into line with other OECD nations."

The channels will carry limited sponsorship on FreeView, a free-to-air digital platform that a consortium of broadcasters will launch early next year.

TVNZ News 24 will go to air late next year and will feature about 80% local content. Unlike CNN or Fox or SKY News, it will be a broad factual service with current affairs, sport and documentaries in addition to news.

TVNZ Home, which will follow early in 2008, will showcase children's and family programming during the day, and special interest programming at night.

"In one channel, we are engaging with three very different audiences who will find their interests catered to as never before," TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis said. "This is a very substantial leap forward in our role as a public broadcaster."

TVNZ expects original New Zealand production will average 35% across its analog networks, TV One and TV2 -- which also will be on FreeView -- and their new sister channels.

The dawning of FTA digital TV will be high on the agenda of Kiwi producers and broadcasters as they gather for their industry's annual conference in Auckland on Thursday.

The three-day event, run by the Screen Production and Development Assn., will focus on new opportunities for producers from digital and new media developments like FreeView.

TVNZ also is investigating multiplatform initiatives, such as downloading and iPod videocasting, that it is likely to unveil over the next six months.

The implications of these initiatives for intellectual property rights, distribution and terms of trade will be addressed at the conference by leading digital and new media expert Brian Seth Hurst of the Opportunity Management Co.

In the meantime, TVNZ's commitment to local content on its analog networks, in the face of falling ad revenue and ratings for TV One, is being questioned.

TVNZ executives say New Zealand-made fare will continue to be the cornerstone of their schedules but key producers are nervous about short-term commissioning prospects and expect local content levels to fall.

Other keynote speakers at the conference include October Films co-founder Bingham Ray, Swedish producer Tomas Eskilsson and Sander Schwartz, of Warner Bros. Animation.

In addition to plenary sessions, there will be workshops, masterclasses and the presentation of awards for the SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year, SPADA Independent Producer of the Year and the SPADA/Onfilm Industry Champion.

Capping the last day of the conference will be the Qantas Television Awards on Saturday night.
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