Is It Time for TVNZ to Revert to Public Broadcasting?

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My op-ed this week is devoted to personal musings in the lead up to the NZ Screen Sector Strategy hui, and the changing nature of the screen industry as we know it.

Colin Peacock on the Radio New Zealand website wrote on the weekend about ‘Convergence’: what it is and what it has led to—telecommunications and broadcasting merging due to digital technology and the Internet.

One outcome of the convergence that’s happened here, which I wrote about last newsletter, was the TVNZ board reporting to Government that it will not be paying a dividend for the foreseeable future.

In the same RNZ convergence article, TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick is quoted as saying that TVNZ will refine the data from TVNZ OnDemand users to allow advertisers to tightly target ads to online viewers.

Following last year’s revamp of TVNZ OnDemand, RNZ also reported Kendrick as saying, “Consumers of online video are pretty clear they pay with their wallet, their data or their time. We’re in an ad-funded world.”

With no profits in sight and the Government forgiving TVNZ its requirement as a state-owned company to deliver a dividend, is it time to turn TVNZ back into a public broadcaster and forget about advertising as the main revenue stream?

If convergence is the reality, how about converging ONE, TVNZ 2, DUKE, TVNZ OnDemand and Radio NZ into a new media powerhouse for public broadcasting? Let’s call it Aotearoa Media Powerhouse – Digital (AMP-D) for ease.

The commitment by Kendrick to a significant increase in local content, the mix between local and international shifting markedly towards local, and investment in an online future while making that content available across more devices would make absolute sense for AMP-D. This would parallel the efforts the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) are making to survive.

Granted, TVNZ would be moving from a business that cost close to $300 million to run in 2018—essentially what they earn from advertising—to a public broadcaster that has to find other ways to earn revenue.

How about an AMP-D Studios along the lines of BBC Studios, whose remit is to produce and market programmes not only for the BBC, but for other broadcasters on the open market at home and internationally, returning profits back to the BBC. AMP-D Studios would give the commercially inclined at TVNZ a new playground to play in.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to AMP-D is we’d get away from this navel-gazing that differentiates New Zealand content for local audiences, which is fragmenting away before our eyes. AMP-D Studios and independents could produce programming that is—to steal something else from the BBC—distinctive (in our case NZ), world-class content. Why couldn’t AMP-D Studios generate shows like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, produced by Danish public broadcaster DR, which sold all around the world? There’d have to be a cap to how much of the public purse AMP-D Studios could get, though.

AMP-D could also generate news and current affairs nationally in a revenue generating service to commercial media companies, much as the NZ Press Association and the worldwide video news service Visnews did previously. This would allow the commercials to put their own spin on the content without the major cost of resourcing.

AMP-D OnDemand could have two operational tiers: Subscriber Video On Demand (SVOD) that’s ad-free and costs a monthly fee, and Ad-Supported Video On Demand (AVOD) that carries advertising in a free-to-air service. Hulu already operates this hybrid system.

In such a new environment, it would make sense for NZ On Air and the NZ Film Commission to ‘converge’. Let’s call this the Aotearoa Media Fund (AMF). AMF could manage the discretionary funding allotted to it to spend between broadcast, digital audio-visual content for the Internet, film and radio.

To really power AMP-D up, AMF could be required to stop funding content on the commercial platforms, dedicate its funding to AMP-D and meet its requirement to deliver great New Zealand content that is valued and enjoyed by many New Zealand audiences on multiple public broadcasting platforms. A cap in funding for internal production for both screen and radio content could be levelled to ensure independent production companies could operate in the new environment.

AMP-D could benefit local feature films by being required to carry all films funded by AMF, guaranteeing free-to air play to New Zealand audiences for every NZ film, which doesn’t happen now. The best films would get significant marketing and promotion. The not-so-good would get buried in AMP-D OnDemand—the same for not-so-great content on Netflix—where they’d sit for those still interested enough to search them out. (Smart Kiwi producers could take a page out of Norwegian producer Anders Tange’s book on how to build an audience independently of a streamer as he did for his Viking comedy Norsemen on Netflix.)

It’s almost certain that there would be an increased cost to establishing and running AMP-D that would take a long time to mitigate if ever, even with the efficiencies of a combined entity. That would be the cost of continued existence.

But perhaps it might be useful to compare New Zealand content and its industry to the kakapo — an endangered species that’s potentially headed towards extinction if we don’t do something paradigm-shifting to save it.

“What about us?”, the commercial platforms here would scream?

Frankly, it’s a fight for survival and we have to ensure first and foremost that our content and our platforms survive and flourish in the brave new world that’s upon us. Sorry, you commercial guys, you’re going to have to sort it for yourselves. Or maybe ‘converge’.  And if they withered and died, maybe it would all be for the better for AMP-D. After all, it would still have to face Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, HBO +, Hulu and others. Heck, AMP-D might even have to team up with the public broadcasters in Australia, Canada, the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere to live to fight another day. Such collaborations are already happening in Europe.

I’m happy for anyone to shoot holes in my postulations above. I’ve only spent a couple of hours daydreaming, not weeks and months devising a strategy. The intent is to get you to do more thinking about our industry with the screen sector strategy upon us. We can now imagine our own futures and let Government know.

We are going to be sending out the list of questions I wrote about in the last blog to everyone on our database. We want your thoughts about the direction the New Zealand’s screen industry should go. So please take the time to ponder, write to and or tell the Screen Sector Strategy NZ and DEGNZ your opinions. We’ll make sure we collate them and submit them from the Guild along with our thinking, so that we all have a say.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director