14 Nov 2019

Government ponders proposal for public media

From Mediawatch, 5:00 pm on 14 November 2019

RNZ has revealed the government will soon consider a proposal to create a brand new public media organisation replacing state-owned broadcasters TVNZ and RNZ. Mediawatch looks at a plan formed behind closed doors which could be the biggest shake-up in broadcasting for 30 years.  

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Photo: RNZ / 123rf

The man who presided over the creation of TVNZ died earlier this month aged 93.

Ian Cross - as boss of the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand - joined together TV One and the recently launched second channel under the umbrella of state-owned TVNZ in 1980. 

His plan was to end competition between the two channels and make one a non-commercial public broadcaster.

But the second part never happened.  

“Looking back, I created a Frankenstein’s monster,” he told the New Zealand Herald 20 years later.

“Every western country has a non-commercial television service. We haven’t,” he said. 

Even after today’s RNZ scoop, it’s far from clear what sort of monster might emerge from the proposal for a new public media body which will soon be discussed by the cabinet.   

The government's plans for public broadcasting have been made with the public at arm’s length over the past 18 months.  

An advisory group representing both media companies and public service agencies was formed to look at funding options - but its members have never been disclosed and neither has its advice.  

Stuff reported last week the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Kris Faafoi refused to release five documents updating him on discussions between media and officials, citing both the confidentiality of officials' advice and commercial sensitivity.

RNZ reported today the advisory group concluded the status quo was "unsustainable" and "collectively recommended the government agree to disestablish TVNZ and RNZ and to establish a new public media entity."

But it is not clear precisely what this unknown group consider "unsustainable."

Determining success or failure

How the functions and personnel of TVNZ and RNZ can be blended in a new entity will be at the heart of the new plan’s success or failure. 

Previously, this government reckoned that was a bad idea. 

When Labour went into the last election with a policy of boosting public broadcasting with $38m in extra funding, a non-commercial TV channel run by RNZ was part of that plan. 

But TVNZ was excluded by the government’s then-minister of broadcasting Clare Curran. 

"TVNZ has a commercial mandate. To turn it into a public broadcaster would have been difficult culturally and resulted in battles and a lack of value for the taxpayer," she told Mediawatch in 2017 about the commercial culture. 

Mark Jennings, co-editor of Newsroom and former head of news at TV3, told Morning Report simply putting the two organisations together would fail because they were too culturally different. 

"We've had two organisations that have had very clear focuses. To try and turn them into something like the ABC in Australia now risks an awful lot,” Mr Jennings said. 

Australia has the ABC’s non-commercial channels on TV, radio, and online. Australians also get ethnically focused national radio and TV from SBS and NITV, which only run low levels of ads on some services.

Almost $250m of New Zealand taxpayers' money is spent on broadcasting each year. It provides a lot of local content – especially for free-to-air TV - but only a fraction of it funds the kind of public broadcasting services comparable countries overseas enjoy. 

In the digital era, the output of media companies overlaps more than ever before and a single public media outfit is logical.

But success or failure will hinge on exactly how it is funded and how public service functions are ring-fenced from commercial influence. 

What’s in the plan? 

RNZ reports the proposal specifies a not-for-profit structure with "statutory protection for editorial and operational independence".

It includes "a clearly defined public media mandate and purpose" to provide public media services across a variety of platforms, "some of which may be advertising free." 

The plan is for a "mixed funding model" with money from the Crown and from a range of "non-Crown sources including advertising, sponsorship and subscriptions.”

This is tricky territory. 

A Labour-led government tried to establish public service programming on TVNZ’s commercial channels with the TVNZ Charter in 2003 - and it failed. 

It forced TVNZ to launch non-commercial channels (TVNZ 6 and 7) in 2006. Both had vanished within six years.  

A profit-focused TVNZ had no real interest in nurturing these services. Any public entity with commercial revenue in the mix will have to draw very clear lines between the sources and the purpose of the funds.  

Who runs the new public media company - and on what terms - will also be important.

Ireland's RTE - which has both public and commercial funding  - last week cut jobs, services and costs because of a budget crisis for which its management has been heavily criticised. 

Likewise, the governors of the proposed new not-for-profit 'mixed model' New Zealand public media one-stop-shop would need the skills and determination to ensure public service needs are not sacrificed to pressures of budgets or commercialism.

Commercial broadcasters on the sidelines

When Mr Faafoi first hinted at a comprehensive public media policy review a year ago, he said he was concerned about “media diversity and plurality” threatened by the chronic financial problems of commercial media companies. 

Some of those have aggressively lobbied the government since then, insisting state ownership of the dominant commercial free-to-air TV broadcaster had skewed a tight market against them. 

MediaWorks announced in October it wants to get out of television and could close its channels - such as Three - if it couldn’t sell them.

But Mark Jennings said the proposed new public media body would make little difference to the commercial media industry in the short term. 

"If the government wanted to help the commercial sector, removing advertising from TVNZ 1 would be significant . . . but we need to know soon what is proposed there," he said.

Leaked details of the plan to be considered by Cabinet don’t mention Māori broadcasting, which is currently being reviewed separately by the government and Te Māngai Pāho, or New Zealand on Air which dispenses more than $100 million of taxpayers' money on a contestable basis for TV, radio, and digital media productions. 

Any truly comprehensive review of public media funding must also include rethinking their role in the future.