28 Aug 2016

Digital media upheaval prompts a tweak of the law

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 28 August 2016

Digital technology has created huge upheaval in broadcasting, but there's no bold change in the latest review of our mostly pre-internet regulations.

29062016 Photo RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King. Amy Adams, Minister of Justice.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King;

While the most multi-media Olympic Games ever held were winding up last weekend, the minister of broadcasting and communications released two statements about digital technology reshaping the modern media.  

“Today’s converged media landscape is changing the way we communicate, conduct business and access entertainment channels,” said the first of Amy Adams' statements.

“Better broadband is putting large volumes of global and digital content at the fingertips of New Zealanders. Streaming content on-demand through our mobile devices or obtaining news on the web is now the new norm,” it went on to say.

It's true. Kiwis can read that statement on the website of the Mexico City Sun, of all places. And even if you aren’t streaming your content online, you’re paying for the pipes that make it possible.

More than $1.3 billion of public money has been earmarked to roll out ultra-fast broadband (UFB) around the country.

“We’re making sure our legislation is fit for purpose and able to withstand the rapid changes we are seeing across the sectors,” said Ms Adams last weekend.

New law on the horizon

With that in mind, a second statement that same day announced the Digital Convergence Bill - first-ever piece of legislation directly addressing digital change in the media.

This grew out of a review announced last August which would include broadcast content regulation. The minister said it would consider how programmes are classified, restrictions on advertising and how to support local screen content into the future.

But a section headed The Government's Toolbox' also asked:

Are the current policy interventions in the media sector fit for purpose in a converging sector?

Are there alternative or additional policy interventions you consider appropriate in the emerging media environment?

These are big questions, especially for a government that’s so far been almost allergic to hands-on regulation of the media. Most of our broadcasting legislation is older than the internet and telecommunications and broadcasting still have separate regulators even though both businesses are rapidly blending.

The public stake in broadcasting

Almost $250 million dollars of public money is spent on broadcasting and content creation each year, mostly by New Zealand On Air and Maori broadcasting funder Te Mangai Paho. The government and the public alike have a stake in ensuring it is not wasted.

Is the government pondering a bold new change, like the technology-driven proposal for online schools unveiled this this week? Does it have a new vision for state-owned broadcasters TVNZ or RNZ, whose charter was recently amended with the digital revolution in mind? 

In the end there was nothing like that in the outline of the Digital Convergence Bill. It merely tweaks the current Broadcasting Act (1989).

Sunday stays special and more oversight for on-demand

The Bill will empower the Broadcasting Standards Authority to extend the sort of standards that apply to radio and TV broadcasting to on-demand services like Neon, Netflix and Lightbox. The new standards won’t apply to news programmes or videos people post on Facebook or YouTube.

TVNZ and TV3’s owner Mediaworks both urged the government to scrap commercial-free airtime on Sundays from 6am til noon. The same restriction doesn’t apply to other broadcasters, they complained.

But the TV companies and advertisers were knocked back.

The Digital Convergence Bill will only allow television broadcasters to run Sunday morning ads “during significant events, such as major overseas sports events like the Rugby World Cup” and none at all on four major holidays.  

“While God will continue to defend New Zealand except when the Rugby World Cup is on, government isn’t yet prepared to allow anything less godly than network promos to interrupt programming on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Anzac Day and Christmas Day,” said ScreeNZ editor Keith Barclay.

Status quo still top of the charts

Those hoping for new ideas to foster local broadcasting were disappointed too.

“We . . . were satisfied that the existing arrangements through NZ On Air and Te Māngai Pāho contained sufficient flexibility to respond well to convergence.” said Amy Adams' statement. 

Does this tweak of the status quo confirm that, even in a time of technological upheaval, the government really doesn't want to open its 'toolbox' to regulate broadcasting? 

"There was not a strong voice coming through from the submission process [that] suggested areas demanding attention, broadcasting minister Amy Adams told Mediawatch.

"We had a good look at the funding mechanisms and the contestable funding pools through New Zealand on Air and we were satisfied they were fit-for-purpose in a converged world. We haven't shut down debate on this, but in this wave of reform we have identified the issues that were creating iniquities and we have responded to those". 

TVNZ and TV3 currently screen most of their few remaining public service-style programmes about politics, Maori issues, disability and ethnicity on Sunday morning in the commercial-free time. There are now so many all bunched up together impossible to watch them all, and almost all of these almost all of which are publicly-funded.    

Is that why the government won't remove the restriction, which both broadcasters say is unfair and hurts their bottom line? 

"I do think there's merit in retaining a portion of the broadcasting week for special interest programming. Lets face it, Sunday morning is not the most-watched and commercially-valuable time, but it does provide an opportunity for (those programmes) to get to air which would otherwise struggle in that space," said Ms Adams.

"Once the investment has been made in production, those programmes can be made available online," she added. "If we didn't have that commitment to a viewing slot, the programmes probably wouldn't be made". 

The level of public funding for broadcast content is an issue which is separate from the regulatory system, she told Mediawatch.

The last major technological upheaval was digital switchover of television. For that, the government backed the Freeview platform for free-to-air broadcasters. Telcos were levied to ensure a nationwide spread of services. 

Is government considering something similar for 'converged' media as UFB spreads around the country? 

Ms Adams says the government's investment in the UFB network is itself supporting distribution for media companies' content in the future. 

"What we intended to do in this review is identify iniquities in the the rules that apply to these different platforms that need to be addressed. We have addressed the ones that are clear," said Ms Adams.