6 Mar 2024

Broadcasting Minister Melissa Lee fronts after denying hiding following Newshub news

6:00 pm on 6 March 2024

A week after the pending demise of Newshub and the loss of 300 jobs was made public, the media and communications minister has finally fronted for a live interview.

Warner Bros Discovery, which owns Newshub, plans to axe all local news and current affairs programmes by 30 June. Network bosses told staff that advertising revenues have dissolved more quickly than expected, meaning the channel's current business model is not financially sustainable.

That same week Stuff also made staff redundant, and TVNZ announced it had lost almost $17 million in the six months to December, its CEO signalling strongly that cuts are coming - perhaps as soon as Thursday.

Criticised for not fronting up for a live interview earlier, citing a full diary, Melissa Lee on Wednesday appeared on RNZ's Checkpoint, calling Newshub's demise "shocking" and "surprising".

"When I met with Warner Bros [sic] last year, when they came and saw me, we were talking about different things that could potentially help them. Then, you know? So when I was told that there was going to be an announcement, initially I thought they were actually saying they were transitioning to streaming services instead of traditional [digital terrestrial television] service that they have to pay money for in terms of Kordia fees, so it was rather a surprise."

She was told about Warner Bros Discovery's decision the night before.

"I was shocked when [Warner Bros Discovery head of networks] Glen Kyne told me the night before the announcement that that was what was going to happen."

Last week, Lee played down the impact the loss of Newshub would have on the New Zealand journalism landscape, saying there was "a whole lot of other media about", including Sky. The only New Zealand-produced news on Sky's channels, News First At 5.30, is produced by Newshub.

"I don't think I was actually articulate enough, and I've actually explained… that what I was talking about is how people are consuming media nowadays," Lee said.

"They're not traditionally just watching television, you know, at six o'clock for the news, they have many different options that they're actually going for - whether it's actually on the web or on the phone."

Newshub also has a digital news service and phone app.

Melissa Lee on Checkpoint, 6 March 2024.

Melissa Lee on Checkpoint, 6 March 2024. Photo: Checkpoint / RNZ

Lee said Sky had "several news channels".

"It may not be New Zealand news, but they do actually have options. And since then, I think Sky has actually - I saw news articles saying that Sky was potentially considering doing New Zealand news maybe… I encourage them to actually look at that."

TVNZ on Thursday told staff it would make an announcement about the future of news at the broadcaster on Thursday. Lee said she spoke to bosses there on Friday - but would not reveal details of her conversation, including potential redundancies, saying that was up to TVNZ to reveal.

"It is their information that I don't think I am entitled to actually tell the public."

She declined to comment on Newshub's offer to TVNZ to team up in some ways to cut costs, nor suggestions TVNZ could cut its 6pm news to half-an-hour or cancel current affairs programming.

"I don't think it really matters what I think about how news is actually produced or actually is shown in public. I think these are decisions for the broadcasters and news entities.

"Having said that, I think news entities need to realise that people are consuming news a very different way, and sometimes some people are actually thinking, you know, they don't want to sit there for an hour watching the news."

TVNZ also has a news website and app.

Lee said the end of linear TV had been "signalled for a long time".

"How soon is dependent on how quickly the audience has actually dropped out from the linear television sector. So, yes, it is something that the media companies will have to consider and actually work with."

Lee was warned by officials in November there would be job losses and businesses could fall over if the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill was delayed. The bill aims to "enable fair bargaining between New Zealand news media entities and operators of digital platforms to support commercial arrangements for news content" and support "a free and independent news media industry by providing a way for news media entities to be viable in a digital marketplace".

Much of the advertising spend that used to go on broadcast television has shifted to big digital players like Meta (Facebook, Instagram) and Google in recent years. Lee opposed the bill in opposition.

"I could have killed off the bill when we became government," she told Checkpoint. "I actually let it go to select committee because I felt that it was important to hear the public and the sector and stakeholders to actually have their say… I'm open minded about what comes out of it.

"And I said, I'll give what comes out of select committee due process, and I will have to wait for that process to finish before I consider how this bill will progress."

That could take months. Lee said she wished it could go faster to prevent more job losses, but that was the process - and blamed Labour for not passing it before losing last year's election.

"This is something that Willie Jackson as minister could have potentially passed last year, or in the six years that the Labour government was in power. I've only been in the driver's seat for three months, and the previous government had six years to do this.

"And this is not something that has, you know, cropped up in the last three months. This is something that has been happening gradually and quickly for quite a few years now."

Meta recently said it would not be renewing its contract with Australian news outlets when it runs out. Lee said that was their decision to make - as was Warner Bros Discovery's to cancel Newshub.

"I think it's a sad day when you actually lose a major news channel which lots of people actually love and, yeah, I feel for them.

"But having said that, it's a commercial decision by Warner Bros Discovery. The parent company, you know, which is worth billions, feel that, you know, it just wasn't viable. And it's not something that the government can actually go in there and rescue."

Asked where she gets her news, Lee's first answer was "my phone". She then clarified she reads RNZ, 1News and newspapers.

Recap the interview via our liveblog:

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