This week a Parliamentary committee heard concerns from other media companies about the new public media entity, as opposition attacks on the cost of it intensified. Meanwhile a significant funding shift for local content came to light, revealing further tensions and uncertainties.
Last Wednesday many news bulletins kicked off with Costco opening its doors, and worrying existing retail players - in Auckland at least - because of its scale.
While hundreds of superfans queued up at the new mega retailer, critics of the government’s so-called 'mega media merger' of its two biggest state-owned media outlets were lining up too.
Broadcasting and media minister Willie Jackson was grilled in Parliament on the costs and consequences of creating Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media (ANZPM) to replace RNZ and TVNZ.
“Can the minister confirm the $370m merger of RNZ and TVNZ has had no regulatory impact statement or cost benefit analysis?” asked National Party broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee.
“I’ll come back to the Member on that,” Willie Jackson replied, prompting howls of opposition derision - and prompting the Speaker to allow Ms Lee to have another go at a proper answer.
Ms Lee was eventually told neither was needed because they'd already created a specific business case for the new entity over many months.
Willie Jackson rejected her $370m price tag on the new public media entity, which The National Party has co-opted as its go-to example of wasteful spending.
On Morning Report earlier that day, leader Christopher Luxon bumped it up to $375m and called it “a huge amount of wasted money.” The next day his deputy and finance spokesperson Nicola Willis repeated the claim at the top of a laundry list of government spending she would cut.
But while opposition parties claim the government is fixing something not broken, no-one has asked them if they would reform a sector in which the state already spends about $350m a year - and still doesn't get a comprehensive multi-media public service.
In Parliament Willie Jackson was also challenged on a comment he made last week, telling a select committee TVNZ needed to “change its attitude” for the transition to the new entity.
“We require a change of culture. It's not just about making money. It's about New Zealanders feeling proud knowing who they are,” he replied.
His long and unfocused answer pre-empted the following patsy question.
“Why is it important to invest in public media?” asked Labour's MP Naisi Chen.
“Every democracy in the world (enlists) public media to support democracy and culture. That's that's the case with the BBC. That's the case in Ireland, Australia and Canada. We absolutely believe New Zealanders deserve that too,” Willie Jackson replied, reading from his notes this time.
Those countries have long funded their public broadcasting - at least in part - through a fee paid by households (as we used to do here prior to 1990) or directly from central government coffers. Those broadcasters are then fully accountable for how they spend the money.
But here, government funding agencies like NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho have allocating taxpayers’ money to broadcasters and made decisions about publicly-funded content for the past 30 years.
Funding switch ruffles feathers
Ahead of the long weekend last Friday, NZ On Air emailed media an innocuous-sounding “Quick Update” confirming that more than two weeks earlier, the Minister had written to them to say $85m - the bulk of its current budget - will go straight to the new public media entity in future.
That sum includes the $42.6m NZ on Air currently funnels to RNZ each year, and estimates at $40m the amount of the contestable funds for specific programs and content that usually ends up on TVNZ’s channels anyway.
NZ on Air will only be administering about $70m a year in the foreseeable future.
This was not unexpected. The government had already indicated ANZPM would not be eligible for compete for NZ on Air funds.
But this significant change is something those who wrote the 980 submissions on the ANZPM legislation would have wanted to know before the deadline for submissions on 8 September - the day after the minister gave NZ on Air’s top brass the bad news in that letter.
Predictably, the outlets and producers who have depended upon access to this public funding for so long were alarmed.
Newshub at 6 said the move “would drastically cut the funding available for other producers.”
It went on to say “a number of high profile producers . . . didn't want to speak on record for fear of falling out of favour with the new media behemoth that will soon have the lion's share of funding.”
Some are already working on programmes and projects whose funding arrangements and obligations extend beyond the switch of funding and authority to the new media entity.
"Taking away the funding means that neither the new organization nor NZ on Air air actually have enough money to make the things that we all watch. The things we grew up with,” John Barnett, former boss of South Pacific Pictures, told Newshub last Wednesday.
But the ‘merger’ might actually mean more money spent on local factual programs, comedy and drama - from both the new public media entity’s public funding of $109 million a year until 2026, and the commercial TV revenue ANZPM will pull in.
But with no executives appointed yet and no content strategy, no one knows quite how the new not-for-profit entity will spend its money from next year on.
"It is essentially untagged – it’s for ANZPM to figure out what to do with it," Spinoff CEO and publisher Duncan Grieve wrote last week, before news of the NZ on Air funding shift was confirmed.
"The new entity could use that capital to pounce on parts of the market commercial operators depend on . . . and the prospect of a $500m behemoth which only has to earn $350m is rightly viewed as a doomsday machine if improperly handled," he wrote.
Similar concerns were aired at this week's select committee hearing.
“Our anxiety is that no one is saying to us what ANZPM and NZ on Air between them have got ring-fenced for local production,” Irene Gardiner, the chair of the screen producers lobby group SPADA, told the second hearing on the ANZPM legislation at Parliament last Thursday.
“Is it the same as what it is now? Is it more because there are more public media outcomes to realize? Or is it less? And if it is less, then why are we doing this?” asked Gardiner, who was previously engaged as an advisor on the government's public media plans and is currently also on the board of RNZ.
She's far from the only one now asking that question of the government's overall public media plans.
Other media groups told the EDSI committee they were wary of the beefed up public broadcaster cutting across their interests. The umbrella group for commercial radio, the Radio Broadcasters Association and the News Publishers Association both said the new entity would distort the media market in which their members operate.
The government's plan was even lacking backing in Thursday's hearing from those who told the committee they liked the idea, but want greater clarity along with greater public funding already pledged.
Last Tuesday there was little further clarity in the 23-page Strategic Framework for a Sustainable Media System (PDF) released by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
And the section headed: 'Enhancing the role of NZ on Air' makes no mention of cutting its budget in half to fund the new public media entity’s content creation.