9 Feb 2020

Minister lifts the lid on public media plan - a little

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 9 February 2020

The government's been criticised for making its long-awaited plan for public broadcasting behind closed doors. This week the broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi lifted the lid a little, but the new public media entity due by 2023 is far from clear.

The broadcasting minister updates an audience in Christchurch on his public media plans.

The broadcasting minister updates an audience in Chrsitchurch on his public media plans. Photo: photo / Facebook

So far, the government's plan for the future of public media has been seen only by the politicians, media company executives and selected public servants involved in the process of working it out. 

Thanks to a source - or sources - spilling the beans to RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson recently, we already knew they had settled on the option of a new public media organisation to replace state-owned RNZ and TVNZ within three years. 

She reported that those at the cabinet table wanted more details about precisely how that would work and ministers have demanded a business case before giving it a green light.

It was even common knowledge that consultancy PwC had been hired for the task.  

In an address at the Christchurch Broadcasting School on Friday Kris Faafoi confirmed all this for the first time.  

Coalition partners NZ First and the Greens, RNZ and the government’s broadcasting finding agency New Zealand On Air all quickly put out statements welcoming this "strengthening of public media."

But in his speech and the questions that followed, we learned few further details on Friday.

Questions such as who would run it and how much money would it have remain unanswered. The mix of revenue from Crown and commercial sources is still unknown and how today's highly-commercial TVNZ could fit inside a new public media entity tomorrow is still an open question. 

The minister said PwC's business case will take around six months to prepare and the Cabinet would consider it. 

That will be very close to the start of campaigning for the 2020 election -  something TVNZ’s chief executive Ken Kenrick pointed out in a statement addressed to TVNZ’s commercial clients.  

"Future plans and timelines will rest on the outcome of this election,' Kevin Kenrick told TVNZ's advertisers.  

"You can be assured that we will continue to proactively champion the need for New Zealand businesses to reach large relevant audiences as an integral part of any future public media plans," he added. 

That's a pretty clear signal that TVNZ will resist any attempts to de-commercialise it as a precursor to a new public media company.  

In his speech the minster confirmed it will have revenue from both crown and non -crown sources.  

But much of each?  

Kris Faafoi said that will be determined only after PwC reports back. 

Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi speaking at Christchurch Broadcasting School on Friday.

Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi speaking at Christchurch Broadcasting School on Friday. Photo: scre

"I'm not going to pre-empt budget decisions or the business case because my career would be short," he said. 

"But if the business case comes back and has proposals for getting it off the ground we will consider it," he said. 

Kris Faafoi confirmed that New Zealand on Air - which dispenses funds for local content to local media on a contestable basis - will remain a key part of the system. 

Will that be further funded?

"You'll have to wait til Budget time to know that," he said.  

They’re already struggling in a market now occupied by Facebook, Google and Netflix as well as other local media competitors.

The minister also said we would have to wait and see what the impact might be on commercial media companies which will co-exist with what's been described as a "super-sized"  single new public media company from 2023. 

"When I arrived in this job a number of traditional media players said: 'if this continues, we're gone'," Kris Faafoi told Mediawatch after he became broadcasting minister in late 2018.  

He said he'd already been taking soundings from Stuff, NZME and MediaWorks and others about their prospects.  

"If we keep public funding strictly for public media entities and things continue in the way they have told me (about), they may no longer be in existence in three or four years and we will only have one voice for media.

I'm willing to have a conversation. If we carry on the course we have now, the big global entities will completely take out the business case of our traditional media companies. It is important for our democracy not only to have good quality journalism but plurality of voices in that space as well."  

Kris Faafoi on Mediawatch in December 2018. 

But there was nothing in his announcement in Christchurch on Friday that would give any comfort to local commercial media companies.  

Going into the 2017 election, his Labour Party campaigned on a $38 m a year boost for public broadcasting - but later scrapped the policy.

Now its seems the appropriate investment is a matter for the consultants at PwC.

But Kris Faafoi denies his government had downgraded its commitment to public broadcasting and media since it took office. 

“That might have been the policy back in 2017 but I think even in that short time since . . . quite a lot has shifted in the media,“ he said.

“If we look at the challenges, something needs to happen to our public media for it to be fit to the future and offer the great stories and great journalism delivered in the past,“ he said.

Without a clear notion of how much the government is prepared to invest, is there any guarantee the government is "strengthening public media" as they claim at all?

Kris Faafoi said further funding applied the status quo would not work.   

"Leaving the public media landscape as it was would’ve left both of those entities not in the right state to deal with the challenges we have talked about," he said. 

Kris Faafoi confirmed that all public broadcasting services that are currently commercial-free will remain so. 

So will the new entity depend upon television advertising revenue currently harvested by TVNZ? 

"It will continue to rely on some commercial funding. That will give options to the new entity in the future if it wants to start a new platform that might be commercial-free for a particular type of audience - or a commercial one for a different offering," he said. 

"That nimbleness and the ability to raise funding to support the core public media mandate work they do is going to be important, but so is the Crown funding that’s always supported public media," he said.

Will it be the consultants at PwC that determine the mix and the balance of that?

“They will give us some options of what might be best if you want to keep Crowd funding on its current track or maybe another couple of options," he said. 

"We want to make sure that this thing is sustainable for the long term," he said.