Bringing Parliament and more to the people: PTV

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If we kept up with the general affairs of Parliament we would all be a little lost if it weren’t for Parliament TV.

It is a service freely available to the public as a TV channel on Freeview TV and other platforms and is live streamed on Parliament’s website, while RNZ, which provides the audio, also broadcasts it on AM radio. There’s even an app.

Dean Brain, head of media at Kordia, which runs Parliament TV, at the company’s remote production studio in Avalon.
Photo: Johnny Blades/VNP

Kordia, a state-owned company, has operated Parliament TV for 15 years via a remote production facility from its purpose-built digital studio in Avalon: three days a week, thirty weeks a year, and controls eight cameras, seven of which are robotically controlled placed a fiber optic network in the meeting room. Dean Brain, Kordia’s head of media, said that broadcasting the house during his session was fast-paced television.

“When we started it was very rule-sensitive about what we could and couldn’t show and over time we’ve earned the trust of the people who control it and we now have a clause that says ‘at our discretion director’s, so if it tells a story, we would show something.”

One of the biggest challenges, he said, is when the debate in the plenary hall becomes lively. The main rule is that if the speaker is on his feet, parliamentary television may only show the speaker.

Something PTV isn’t allowed to do is show a member being booted out of the chamber, which is a bit disappointing for us viewers. But there are plenty of other theatrics that amuse people, from the intensity of Question Time to the sleepy evening debates. Whether they know it or not, MPs can be seen.

“Bill English, I think from memory, was always a guy who was always looking up to see what camera was looking at him to get a shot, and I think he played with that a bit in the early days,” Brain said .

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Bill English: Look at you, kid.
Photo: VNP/Phil Smith

refinement of the product

The audio and video data is pumped out of the basement beneath the beehive, which is fed by the innumerable cables of the parliament building.

“There’s such a network of wiring in this building that you could actually lose your mind just looking at it,” said Greg Cotmore, an officer in the Office of the Clerk who monitors broadcasting and is PTV’s contact in Parliament.

How PTV should use downtime around meetings has long been a contentious issue, Cotmore said. Over the years, Parliament TV has evolved its product.

“When I started in 2011 when the House adjourned there was just a static screen with a message saying when the next meeting was. That was it. The technology, once it’s developed and having the budget to acquire the new technology, allows us to do different things.”

PTV has gradually updated the services it offers, including closed captioning, overnight roll charts (with information on selected committees), an on-screen language progress button during debates, and crawling at the bottom with information on what deals are being conducted. In 2019, PTV started adding Te Reo translations.

Greg Cotmore, a Parliament Clerk in the Office of the Clerk who oversees radio and Parliament television.

Greg Cotmore, a Parliament Clerk in the Office of the Clerk who oversees radio and Parliament television.
Photo: Johnny Blades

When the house is not occupied, there is increasingly interesting programming on Parliament TV, particularly the rich selection of New Zealand art featured in the Artvox-curated series Municipal Arts Foundation.

“Part of our Kaupapa is making sure every New Zealander has the opportunity to see New Zealand art. So let our Kaupapa take the art out of the archives and put it where people can see it,” said the foundation’s creative director, Andrew Hagen.

“In my mind’s eye I always think of that little walk to school, far north of Auckland, where the children hardly get a chance to see what’s going on in the big cities; and the teacher turns on the tv and says okay everybody listen, we’re going to look at a certain artist or a certain competition that we’re showing. And that is very important to me because it is part of our training.”

Sign language endures

So there’s a lot to see on parliamentary television, even if it’s not MPs swearing at each other. Another good feature of PTV since 2014 is sign language.”

“We have New Zealand sign language interpreters on site for Question Time during New Zealand Sign Language Awareness Week and also for budget handover and other legislative debates and events in the Chamber of interest to the deaf community,” said Cotmore.

The sign language interpreter is permanently integrated as a picture-in-picture box in the corner of the screen.

“It used to annoy certain viewers. I had a correspondent in Nelson who would regularly email and call me complaining about the picture-in-picture box,” Cotmore said.

“This person described to me what they did – they hung a tea towel over the corner so they couldn’t see the picture and the picture box. Fortunately, we no longer have these complaints. We’ve seen sign language interpreters everywhere now. It’s normalized now.”

New Zealand sign language interpreter Melissa Sutton (Ngāti Maniapoto) in Parliament's television sign studio

New Zealand sign language interpreter Melissa Sutton (Ngāti Maniapoto) in Parliament’s television sign studio
Photo: ©VNP/Phil Smith

Parliament TV can be viewed on Freeview channel 31. It is also made available in speech-by-speech clips via Parliament TV On Demand part of Parliament’s website.


RNZ’s The House – Parliamentary Legislation, Issues and Insights – is produced with funds from Parliament.
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