Struggling news media companies have been lobbying the government behind the scenes for some time. On Thursday broadcaster MediaWorks put it all out in the open, telling the minister responsible its future is in doubt and democracy could die in darkness if he fails to act now.
“I have a challenge for the broadcasting minister. Step in and save New Zealand television and news channels before it’s too late,” Duncan Garner told his listeners and viewers dramatically on the AM show this morning.
To reinforce the message, the studio lights dipped for a few seconds.
Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi was a former TVNZ rival of Duncan Garner when they were both TV reporters in the press gallery 10 years ago.
Ever since Kris Faafoi got the job last year, news media companies have been telling him they need his help.
It was music to their ears when he spoke about shoring up the news media scene, "preserving plurality" and "funding differently".
"There's the purist view that we should only do this through our public media assets like RNZ, TVNZ and Māori TV. But we have had publicly-funded content on MediaWorks channels too," he told Mediawatch last December.
"We need to have a conversation about whether we are willing to take the next step here to make sure things we care about - primarily in journalism - are maintained," he said.
Since then he’s been lobbied to make more public money available to private media companies or tilt the market in their favour.
The minister was in the room as ‘an observer’ when New Zealand on Air met with news executives from major media companies recently. Those discussions were not on the record but pleas for help were made and financial woes were hammered home.
Putting it out there
The pressure on Kris Faafoi was cranked up on Thursday by MediaWorks, the owners of TV channels including Three and half of the nation’s radio stations.
An article based on an interview from last month with its chief executive Michael Anderson appeared on The Spinoff website.
Mr Anderson complained state-owned TVNZ was aggressively commercial in the market “at the expense of the industry.”
He accused the government of tolerating financial performance which commercial company governors wouldn’t.
He told the Spinoff it’s not just his company that could be a casualty.
“A democratic government has to protect democracy. A government would need to do what it needs to do to make sure that there’s news diversity,” he said.
“The government could never find itself in a situation where [there’s] a monopoly on broadcast news. It doesn’t work for democracy,” Mr Anderson told the Spinoff’s Duncan Greive.
Michael Anderson also urged the government to make TVNZ’s main channel TVNZ1 non-commercial.
Previous bosses of the same company have called for this many times. It would boost MediaWorks’ bottom line and its medium-term prospects immediately.
Interestingly, it’s also a long-standing policy of Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First which would want a say in any change in media funding policy.
Reinforcing the message
The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive wrote MediaWorks’ sustained losses in TV could mean the closure of the company’s channels before long and other media companies face similar choices.
“Judging by the demeanour of our media executives, that point is closer than any of them would like to admit,” he concluded.
But the boss of the same company’s news operations had no qualms about admitting that in a piece published on his own Newshub site the same day - under a picture of a shattered TV set and the headline The Problem with news in New Zealand.
“I'm angry that my newsroom, Newshub, is part of a business struggling to keep its head above such polluted waters,” MediaWorks chief news officer Hal Crawford said.
And - like his boss - he blamed TVNZ for fouling the nest and the government for letting it.
“They inherited their infrastructure and audience from a public broadcaster and pretended for a few years to be a commercial enterprise. But when the going got tough, instead of shrinking, they were allowed to act in a non-commercial way,” he wrote.
“While they are losing this money, they will be taking a disproportionate amount of government funding from New Zealand On Air,” he added (though based on the audiences, it could also be argued MediaWorks gets the disproportionate share).
Hal Crawford acknowledged that it wasn't just TVNZ’s fault news here is now “broken”.
He also pointed out that Australian media company Nine now owns New Zealand’s biggest publisher of news, Stuff. But it doesn’t want it - and it can’t sell it.
He said NZME’s flagship paper the Herald was “naturally not inclined” to cover what he called its own “inch-by-inch subsidence.”
“Unfortunately all the cliches about the free press and democracy are right. We need news to keep this lemon on the road,” he added, echoing his boss.
So two Australian executives at the top of New Zealand’s biggest private broadcasting company are clearly not happy with their lot here, or the media landscape - and they want the government to change it without delay.
Their loudest voice in Newshub's newsroom got the memo too.
“Kris. I know you’re up for this - there’s money in the kitty. You’ve got to help," wailed Duncan Garner on three's AM show earlier this week.
“It's not fair. TVNZ no longer has to pay a dividend. No more quotas, no more charters, no more obligations. Too big to fail. No way it will ever go under,” he claimed.
“It's much harder for Three to survive but not just us. NZME, Fairfax (Stuff) too. We can’t compete. Ultimately we die. The lights will go out,” he said
Almost 30 years ago, the government did step in keep the lights on when the first version of TV3 went under trying to compete with TVNZ - which did act aggressively to consign TV3 to the margins of the market back then.
The law was then changed to allow foreign owners to buy TV3 and keep it - and competition - alive.
But that was in the days long before the internet and video-on-demand. Sky TV was still a bold and loss-making idea.
It remains to be seen if the minister is persuaded by these very public and self-interested pleas for help - and the loftier claims that democracy could die in media darkness.
After years of accusing the industry’s critics of talking too much about its problems, it’s extraordinary that a media company is now using its own outlets to do the same - and push them firmly into the face of the government at the same time.