2 Oct 2016

Muted response to big shift in public funding plans

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 2 October 2016

Established New Zealand broadcasters will compete with online outlets for our public broadcasting money from next year under a new regime proposed by New Zealand On Air. It is a significant change, but largely ignored so far by the media.

Image illustrating simplified funding streams.

Photo: supplied / NZOA

Last week the government’s broadcasting funding agency New Zealand on Air (NZOA) announced a shake-up of the way it spends $135 million dollars each year - public money which pays for radio and TV programmes and Radio New Zealand, as well as funding music, digital and Māori content.

What’s proposed is a fundamental change in the way NZOA allocates it all - and to whom. The draft strategy is open for feedback until 18 November.

What's prompted the new plan?

With the rise of digital technology and the internet, TV broadcasters, radio networks, online platforms and newspaper publishers are all online these days - and all are publishing pictures, audio, video and text.

Jane Wrightson

Jane Wrightson Photo: supplied

But the funding system was set up to bankroll radio and TV programming. Broadcasters get almost all the public money for their content, and most of that pays for programmes screened on the main free-to-air TV channels: TV1 and 2, TV3 and Prime. All of these are fully commercial channels competing for advertising.

NZOA says research into audience habits today - including research which NZOA commissioned  - shows more people are doing their viewing and listening online, though free-to-air TV still attracts the most viewers.

NZOA’s chief executive Jane Wrightson says she has “chucked the current system out of the window”.  

"We're introducing a simple, flexible strategy that will allow more innovation, and introducing a single fund, called the New Zealand Media Fund, that has four funding streams: scripted, factual, platforms and music," said Ms Wrightson.

The funding of New Zealand music and RNZ won't change much, but current funds ring-fenced for radio, TV and digital projects will be scrapped.

Where will our broadcasting money go?

This means media companies of all types can pitch their projects to NZOA for a slice of around $80 million a year earmarked for "factual" and "scripted" programmes, though big budget programmes are likely to be on the free-to-air TV channels, which still draw the biggest audiences.

Jane Wrightson says the "platform-neutral" NZ Media Fund will be simpler. To illustrate that, NZOA's report for this proposal has a picture of tangled string fed into a nice tidy triangle.

But will it deliver better public broadcasting content than the current system - or previous ones?

Back in the 1980s, households paid a broadcasting fee and in exchange they got public broadcasting on TV and radio, on both commercial and non-commercial networks. The passage of the Broadcasting Act 1989 broke the state’s monopoly on the broadcasting business and its stranglehold on public money for programmes.

From 1990 onwards, New Zealand On Air has decided which programmes and services should be funded with public money and by how much.

The system was not supposed to support news and current affairs on commercial TV, but it does now because TV broadcasters have proved less and less willing to cover the cost of making it in recent years. Today the only local TV programmes dedicated to coverage of politics and important social issues are NZOA-funded.

In other countries, publicly-funded public broadcasters do this: the UK has the BBC, Canada has the CBC and Australia has the ABC and SBS, both operating on TV and radio and online.

But here, no government - or NZOA - has ever made the case for a return to something similar.

Absence of comment

So what then was the response to NZOA's proposal to open up contestable funding to more media outlets, including non-broadcasters and publishers?

Not much in the media.

In The New Zealand Herald media writer John Drinnan said TV producers who have relied on public funding for big-budget drama would be worried, and also the big free-to-air TV channels that depend on NZOA to subsidise their local productions.

There have been a few news stories noting the NZOA proposal and quoting its press releases, and the National Business Review (NBR) interviewed Jane Wrightson, but no newspapers have published editorials or comment pieces about the proposed changes.

That's odd, given that their owners now stand to gain from the NZOA "platform-neutral" plan.

In the past, news publishers like the Herald’s owner NZME and Fairfax Media have trumpeted their financial independence from the state. But earlier this year, Fairfax Media’s chief editor Sinead Boucher told Mediawatch they would welcome public money to fund their journalism via NZOA.

New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie told The Listener documentary-style video would be "the next big play for us both at a newsroom level and an company level".

From July 2017, they will put their hands up, or out, for public money for that.

It's good for the commercial publishers and smaller video producers hoping to fund online projects, but is it good for public broadcasting?

Victoria University senior lecturer in Media Studies, Peter Thompson.

Victoria University senior lecturer in Media Studies, Peter Thompson. Photo: Supplied / Victoria University of Wellington

Victoria University's senior media lecturer Peter Thompson has been a strong critic of the current system and is the chair of the Coalition for Better Broadcasting.

"You can make a case that the fund should not be restricted to broadcasters, but the fundamental issue is that NZOA still relies primarily on big commercial channels to undertake to screen the programmes. "They are still the gatekeepers," he told Mediawatch.

NZOA's strategy says most projects requiring more than $50,000 will need either co-investment or third-party funding.

"In a constrained environment, the amount of money you bring to the table can actively help a great idea," says NZOA. 

Peter Thompson says this favours commercially-attractive projects over ones that may have greater public purpose.

NZOA's Platinum Fund currently has $15 million a year to pay for programmes that would not otherwise be made or screened in a wholly-commercial environment. It will be scrapped next year, though NZOA says 30 percent of the estimated $38 million budget for factual progammes in the new strategy will be earmarked for "special interest, non-mainstream" content.

"Where are they going to distribute this content?" Peter Thompson asks.

"If they're looking for websites with significant audiences and also looking for co-funding, I don't think they'll be funding many independent productions," he says. 

"The big TV channels are never going to schedule minority or special interest content. What they really need is a public service publisher that can pick up all of this content and make it visible, preferably on a broadcast channel."

But that idea was not considered in the government's recently-completed review of convergence and broadcast content regulation, and NZOA's proposed funding strategy certainly doesn't anticipate a new public service platform.