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Last week Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi announced the names of a panel to finalise the business case for the merger of TVNZ and Radio NZ. It’s members are:

  • Chair—former NZ First party deputy leader Tracey Martin.
  • Broadcasting Standards Authority chair Glen Scanlon – a former head of news at RNZ.
  • Former MediaWorks chief executive Michael Anderson.
  • TV producer, former reporter  and member of Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council Bailey Mackey.
  • Broadcasting and technology consultant William Earl.
  • Dr Trisha Dunleavy, Victoria University of Wellington media academic.
  • Producer Sandra Kailahi, former journalist at TVNZ’s Tagata Pasifika, Te Karere and Fair Go.
  • John Quirk, former chair and director of state-owner transmission company Kordia.

This panel has till mid-year to come up with its plan, to go to Cabinet before the end of the year. Its expected to allow for a mixed model of funding, with monies to flow to the merged entity from both Government and advertising.

Free-to-air broadcasting has seen a considerable decline in advertising revenue to the point where two years ago revenue versus expenditure at TVNZ was even. Consequently, TVNZ announced that there were not going to be paying a dividend to the Government. The decline had come primarily at the hand of online advertising, with Google, Facebook and other digital advertising channels benefitting at the expense of free-to-air.

Over the last couple of years, however, TVNZ’s revenue situation has improved, thanks to an improved share of TV market revenue , growth in digital advertising and a move to more locally produced content and a streamer-forced move away from acquired international content.

TVNZ had astutely recognised the value of a digital video platform and ploughed significant investment and resources into its Advertising Video on Demand service TVNZ OnDemand. In 2014 when NZ On Air started its ‘Where Are the Audiences’ research, TV2’s share of the 5+ audience was 27% while OnDemand’s was 7%. In 2020, OnDemand’s share was 21% while TV2’s was 14%.

Radio New Zealand meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. In 2020, a nationwide survey found that RNZ National has become the first New Zealand radio station to record more than 700,000 different listeners each week. CEO Paul Thompson attributed this to the public wanting a trusted source of news. Understandable in the era of fake news. RNZ has also seen growth in its digital channels.

The key concern for many is the merging of the non-advertising public broadcaster Radio NZ with the highly commercial public broadcaster TVNZ. The boards of the organisations reflect the non-commercial and commercial remits of the broadcasting entities.

If the panel wanted to stick to the adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, they’d leave TVNZ OnDemand and Radio NZ alone, most likely turn TV One into a true public free-to-air broadcaster, and dump TV2. But would the advertising revenue from OnDemand be sufficient?

Even with AVOD revenues in a number of countries expected to quadruple in the next five years, it’s doubtful OnDemand would make a big enough contribution to the bottom line with NZ’s small market.

The U.S.’s public broadcaster, National Public Media (NPM) provides a viable revenue-generation option. NPM, which includes National Public Radio (NPR), TV via Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and their digital platforms runs a very specific kind of sponsorship and advertising model that is a proven revenue generator alongside a highly trusted public broadcaster brand. You can learn more about it here. Together with advertising-free content on TV One turned into Ad-supported content when moved to OnDemand, there probably would be sufficient revenues and maybe even some profit from the rejigged organisation.

Installing a completely new board for the new entity, putting RNZ CEO Paul Thompson in charge and making Kevin Kendrick responsible for the commercial arm—just like panel member Bill Earl was in charge of TVNZ Enterprises all those years ago—would play to their strengths as well. Kendrick would undoubtedly find other ways to generate revenue if he were willing to stay in essentially a demoted position.

I’ll be interested to see if my back-of-the-napkin business plan is close or wildly off the mark in July.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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The world of film continues to be shaken up both at home and abroad. The only thing that’s clear is that streaming is here to stay and picking up steam.

Disney is just undertaking an entire reorganisation of its business to put streaming front and centre with content leading the way. The Mulan experiment as a Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) release possibly helped decide their future direction. Even with the need to subscribe to Disney+ just to get the ability to pay the premium price, punters made Mulan the fifth most-streamed SVOD title in the US in September, as tracked by measurement company Park7 Data.

Disney’s move follows WarnerMedia’s refocusing on content after the tepid response to the launch of HBO Max. Over at NBCUniversal, they too have reorganised along with the introduction of their streaming service Peacock.

So where does that leave the theatrical exhibitors?

Just two months ago, the world biggest theatrical exhibitor AMC and NBCUniversal paved the way for PVOD to become a Hollywood fixture when they overcame a bitter windowing disagreement to do a deal. Showing how quickly the old model is now becoming defunct primarily due to COVID, attendance numbers are nearly 85% down on what remains of AMC’s just under 500 theatres still open in America. Even worse, AMC predicts it will run out of cash to operate by the end of the year.

The second largest theatrical distributor on the planet, Britain’s Cineworld, has just announced it will shutter nearly 700 theatres in the UK and the US, threatening nearly 45,000 jobs. It doesn’t know when it will reopen them.

All of this comes amidst the moving feast of tentpole film releases. Christopher Nolan managed to convince Warners to put Tenet into theatres this year, but Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Bond film No Time to Die and Christopher McQuarie’s Mission Impossible 7 are just some of the films pushed back to 2021. All this does is put more pressure on the exhibitors.

Theatres are crying out for tentpole films to help generate revenue, even with social distancing measures in place. They just can’t get them. The situation is so dire directors James Cameron, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen amongst others signed a letter to the US Government that said without additional support, 69% of small and mid-sized cinemas in the US would likely go bankrupt or close.

In New Zealand however, NZ films are having a bit of a dream run with no tent poles and not a lot else to compete against.

DEGNZ member director Sam Kelly’s Savage hit a million dollars at the box office, David White’s This Town has done just over $700k. Paul Murphy’s Low Down Dirty Criminals is still in theatres at Week 7. In the old normal it would likely be gone by now, pushed aside by new releases.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Film Commission just extended for a further six months its COVID-19 Policy regarding its Terms of Trade. This means for films up to $2.5 million, you no longer need to have both a distributor and a sales agent. You only need one or the other. Or, in a major change, a recognised VOD platform can replace the sales agent or distributor.

Frankly, I believe the mandatory need to have any of them for films up to $2.5 million is an old and broken model. If you have a good script and package and they believe in the project, then a sales agent, distributor or platform will come in.

And if they don’t and you make a good film, you will just as likely find them when the film’s ready to show. The supposed financial commitment they make through a Minimum Guarantee (MG) can sometimes be a sham anyway, so why have it as a mandatory requirement for the finance plan? If you have a finished film and more than one sales agent or distributor wants it, it puts you in a stronger negotiating position.

Guaranteed distribution on the public broadcaster’s OnDemand service would deliver the potential for eyeballs with marketing the key to getting people to watch, guaranteeing a viewing avenue for the NZ public.

Theatrical exhibition then becomes the nice-to-have, not the must-have, while still offering the box office revenue opportunity. Window the theatrical first as is still being done and you protect the box office from pillaging by the OnDemand.

Over the Tasman, Screen Australia has already done away with the need for Australasian distribution. A positive amongst the carnage that’s been wrought there in film and television. The big ‘If’ there is whether or not the streamers will pick up the slack as the Australian Government hopes they will. Not levying streamers to produce local content in the expectation that they will take Aussie content anyway is a bet Australian production companies don’t like the odds of.

Meanwhile, here we sit, basking in the glow of the setting sun of the old film industry, hoping like hell that the Golden Age of television is going to save us.

We shall see.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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It’s hard not to talk about what’s going on in the global screen industry when COVID continues to upend screen life as we know it.

Perhaps the biggest seismic shift that has occurred is Universal Studios and AMC, the U.S. and the world’s largest theatre chain, announcing a historic agreement for the studio’s movies to be made available on premium video-on-demand after just 17 days of play in cinemas. Exhibitors have long fought the shortening of theatrical windows and have been able to leverage their fight off the legislation in the U.S. that prevents studios owning theatres.

Some of you will remember the days when a movie came out in theatres first, three months later on VHS, pay TV three months after that and two years later on free-to-air television. This sort of worked for everyone as first VHS and later DVD was incredibly lucrative. Geographical territory releases are part of the windowing business model and still exist today.

Streaming of course upended all of this with its ability to release in multiple territories simultaneously straight into the consumer’s home. In a recent podcast, director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the helmer of Charlize Theron’s The Old Guard, while lamenting that the Netflix release of the film didn’t give it the cinematic presence that a typical theatrical release would have, also extolled the streamer for putting her film into 190 countries in one day.

It’s easy to understand why AMC caved in to Universal—it’s close to bankruptcy thanks to COVID, as are many other theatrical chains and independents. This deal is a watershed one for the movie business. Variety in an article, poses six questions on what the agreement might mean. Perhaps the most interesting for everyone in the independent film space—and that’s where all NZ films sit—is that the studios may shift away from just superhero films and towards quality fare.

In the second big piece of news for the week, the British Government launched an emergency £500M (NZ$1.17 billion) film and TV coronavirus production insurance fund. This is expected to kickstart production in the country that remains threatened by the pandemic. With this boost, British producers will be able to get back into filming, confident that the fund will effectively underwrite the cost of productions closing due to COVID. We still await a similar response from our government for the New Zealand screen industry.

And finally, across the ditch the Australian Government added A$400 million (NZ$431 million) to its location offset, essentially allowing international productions through their rebate scheme to access a total rebate of 30%, in comparison to NZ’s rebate scheme via NZSPG of 20% with a small number getting an additional 5% through the Uplift. It’s highly unlikely that the NZ Government is going to participate in a rebate race to the bottom, and I’m personally not convinced as some others are that this is going to have a significant negative impact on international productions coming to New Zealand.

Time will tell.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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Well it’s happening. The SVOD wars have really kicked off.

Apple TV+ debuted in New Zealand on 1 November with 14 original shows. Very much a tortoise approach from Apple, and you don’t have to pay for it for a year if you’ve bought an Apple product recently. Otherwise you’re up for $8.99/month.

Disney+ meanwhile will be off like a hare at the starting gates, launching more than 600 movies and shows from Day 1, being 12 November (19 Nov. in NZ). Expect every household in the country with kids to at least consider adding a subscription at $9.99/month.

NBCUniversal’s Peacock will soft launch in April 2020 with 15,000 hours of programming, while HBO Max comes online in May with more than 10,000 hours of programming.

Netflix is already feeling the heat.

FilmTake reports that Netflix lost subscribers for the first time in the U.S. since they started in 2011. It has likely reached saturation in the market, and we can expect to see the massive international growth of Netflix to slow or halt, or worse for them, decline.

We all thought Netflix was shaking the screen industry to its core, and it has. But it was primarily Google and Facebook that was impacting on New Zealand’s Free-to-Air market, taking advertising dollars away from TV screens.

The initial streaming entities in NZ did contribute to a decline in Free-to-Air viewership, but our Free-to-Air market was still holding up with significant numbers of New Zealanders continuing to watch mainstream TV. But is that going to be the case now with Disney+ and Apple+ in the market, together with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Neon, and Lightbox and with others to come?

You have to imagine that Neon and Lightbox are fretting about their continued existence, unless Neon has done a deal to retain HBO content and possibly keep HBO Max out of the NZ market. Spark-owned Lightbox will most likely be the first casualty unless their strategy has sport and other offerings in the wings. Spark has the All Blacks and cricket afterall. Unlike Peacock, who is mooted to pursue sport, news and live programming, Spark doesn’t have the programming and financial resources of NBC and Unversal to draw upon. It’s rumoured though that Lightbox is for sale. You’d need big cojones to step into that space , or cash+ and programming+. Streamers who don’t have studio majors and/or their parents as backers are really at a disadvantage. With Netflix now paying a premium to license shows because they are losing the content owned by their competitors, you can’t imagine our locally-owned streamers having deep enough pockets to play in the big leagues. And how much longer will our broadcasters be able to access the best of international product?

At TVNZ, Kevin Kendrick is focusing on more NZ content to differentiate its Free-to-Air and OnDemand brands and help to avoid the price wars on the international scene for programming. This is an area they are likely to be able to call their own, as we can’t expect the international SVODs to commission much here unless they are forced to as the Australians are seriously contemplating making them do. With reality TV to undoubtedly feature highly in the offering, is TVNZ really going to be able to keep NZ viewers in good numbers?

What about Three? Only the woman upstairs knows what’s going to happen there. The gossip: it’s going to be bought by… someone.

Kris Faafoi’s decision about what to do with the soon-to-be loss-making TVNZ and with public broadcasting becomes even more critical now.

And just as this is all happening, NZ On Air CEO Jane Wrightson resigns to become the new Retirement Commissioner.

Jane has done a fantastic job navigating NZ On Air through the tumultuous changes that have impacted on broadcasting in the 12 years she’s been at the helm. But has she been prescient?

In this now constantly changing screen industry world, we’ll undoubtedly find out if NZ On Air gets retired before Jane runs her course in her new job. We’ll certainly learn whether or not Netflix will survive. If you are a producer on a multi-year pay down schedule for the content you sold them, you are going to be hoping somebody will buy Netflix out rather than it going under. As of 30 September, Netflix reported US$12.43 billion in debt and they are adding to it to keep the originals and higher-priced acquisitions coming. That US$292 Netflix share price is definitely going to take a hit sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, hunker down and get binge watching. There’s going to be more than enough for everyone with one, two or three SVOD subscriptions… for a very long time.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

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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