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RNZ Minus?

When Broadcasting, Communications & Digital Media Minister Clare Curran announced her plan to ramp up Radio New Zealand to RNZ+ with additional funding of up to $38 million, there were a lot of smiles out there including on my dial. I love Radio NZ and spend all of my driving time—and that’s a lot of course in Auckland—listening to it.

Equally, there is a lot of concern about what this actually means.

Nobody including me wants to see large chunks of money spent on hardware to build a free-to-air public media TV station to play out linear programming. That sentence there has a number of conundrums worth exploring.

Is it expensive to actually build a TV station? Not necessarily. Having peripherally or directly been involved in three digital channels, I can unequivocally tell you there would be a lot of change from $38 million. However, to feed a TV station with content is like feeding a beast. It consumes everything in its path 24/7 or however many hours you are programming for.

The best way to do it is to buy already made content, which generally comes from offshore because it’s cheaper than making it. Then you can of course rotate it in blocks of four or multiples of, to fill a 24-hour day, and introduce new content to whatever your change in/change out strategy is. That doesn’t help local content makers, though, which is why we have NZ On Air.

You could of course hold up the Maori TV model and say, look at all the local content they are making with the $33 million they get. The immediate reply would likely be, look at the quality of the material that often comes out of there and what Maori Television Service has done to budgets and rates of pay for the programme makers who do the work—that’s potentially the path to devastating the whole industry and certainly not what we want from any RNZ+.

A more important question doing the rounds right now is why build a new channel at all? TVNZ is government owned and TV One could be the free-to-air public broadcaster it should be. This had been proposed by NZ First. It would seem the Minister views the commercial culture of the organisation as a key reason for that not happening, and therefore the need to build a public broadcaster in the screen space out of RNZ.

The simple suggestion mooted in some quarters to fix TVNZ is to replace the board and top management and everyone else in the organisation will fall into the public broadcaster line that the new lot would institute. There are a lot of sceptics about this thinking, including Clare Curran obviously. But it’s not as simple as it sounds, I believe. There would be a lot of complexities involved in moving ONE from it’s commercial positioning to a public broadcaster, which may or may not see change from $38 million. But worth looking at perhaps if it hasn’t been done already?

Then you have to consider what free-to-air actually means. In the People’s Public Media Report, a joint effort between Action Station and the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, presented to Government in December 2017, panellist and independent producer Kay Elmers wrote this:

As we move away from using public money to fund content for free-to-air broadcast delivery platforms, and increasingly fund content that is delivered online only, we have a fundamental problem that this publicly funded content is no longer freely accessible to all citizens.

In talking to Kay about this, she explained that if you have to pay to have data or Internet access to get online content then that’s not free-to-air—with TVNZ or Radio NZ, you only need the hardware to receive the programming. This is a key point of differentiation.

Another key consideration is what does public media mean? Wikipedia’s take, which comes from the widely accepted British definition, has as principles:

  • Universal geographic accessibility
  • Universal appeal
  • Attention to minorities
  • Contribution to national identity and sense of community
  • Distance from vested interests
  • Direct funding and universality of payment
  • Competition in good programming rather than numbers
  • Guidelines that liberate rather than restrict

But, when you read the paper put to cabinet by Minister Curran or the terms of reference provided by her for the just appointed Public Media Advisory Group who will look into the role and scope of the mooted Public Media Funding Commission, you can see an emphasis on news and current affairs and less on the wider content scope that makes up public media in totality.

Drawing on the People’s Public Media Report again, this time from panellist and long-time news and current affairs broadcaster Mark Jennings:

It [public service media] is now seen as perhaps the last bastion of independent, quality news and current affairs, in a media world that is collapsing under a deluge of click-bait and the impact of failing financial models.

So is the Minister throwing out the baby (broad public media content that keeps many of us employed) with the bathwater (TVNZ) to provide quality, independent news and current affairs on an energized Radio NZ (RNZ+)? Here’s hoping the Public Media Advisory Group looks into this. Or do the redacted bits in the cabinet paper (apart from those hiding the group member who withdrew) make RNZ+ a fait accompli?

Another conundrum to discuss: Is there a need for a public media linear channel for RNZ?

When asked by STUFF about it in October last year:

“RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson said RNZ was doing ‘television-like things.’

“We see that growing and improving

“Whether that translates into a fully-fledged, ‘old-style’ linear channel, I am unclear and I probably think it is not necessary given where the market and technology is going.

“Even before taking the new policy into account, we were moving down a path of having more audio-visual delivery of content live and on-demand,” he said.

“This policy would probably accelerate the development of our multimedia plans, but the definitions of what a television channel is and what audiences want and need is changing really quickly and we would have to take that into account,” he said.

Thomson reiterated this in a boisterous select committee hearing last week reported by NEWSROOM, although Curran wasn’t letting them completely off the hook when she added that a free-to-air linear station might be an option “down the track.”

I for one subscribe to Thompson’s approach to the RNZ+ offering. It won’t require major infrastructure spending, and would mean the majority of the new funding RNZ would get from the $38 million could be spent on news and current affairs content.

More importantly, this tack would leave NZ On Air as it is and hopefully provide them with a significant chunk of the $38 million to spend on other local content that is not news and current affairs, rather than receive insignificant funding, which won’t do anyone any good.

There’s a conspiracy view out there that a coterie of grey-bearded academics, embittered former public broadcasters and others have it in for NZ On Air and want it done away with entirely. Every working person in the screen industry I have spoken to about this so far feels that would be absolutely disastrous. As much as we bemoan NZ On Air when they say “No” to our proposals, there is almost universal agreement in the screen industry that it’s efficient and effective, must be kept, and given a lot more money to play with.

We all need to keep a close watch on developments around RNZ+ to make sure we will continue to get a good volume of quality NZ content, including independent news and current affairs, and a real public media offering, all the while ensuring we don’t slide into screen poverty with lower budgets and rates.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director