Radio New Zealand’s CEO Paul Thompson has a message for his commercial rivals – he is not planning to eat their lunch, writes Mark Jennings.

Thompson has sent out the soothing signal after Mediaworks’ boss Michael Anderson called on the Government to re-think its plans to fund a new TV channel called RNZ+.  

Anderson is worried that another free to air TV channel will negatively impact the current players (Three, Bravo, Prime, TV1, TV2 and Duke) in an already over serviced market. 

He has begun lobbying Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to drop the RNZ+ plan and instead turn TV1 into a public service non-commercial channel. 

Thompson was never going to stay silent on the issue.  

He has driven major editorial changes at RNZ since arriving from Fairfax, including a major push into digital content and video, but he has also been adroit at handling the politics that surround the state broadcaster. 

A big part of his strategy has been to move closer to the commercial broadcasters and not alienate them like his predecessor did. 

“Our job is not to go head to head with the TV guys, we want to do things that commercial players won’t do,” Thompson told Newsroom.  

Thompson said his decision to comment was not meant to be a poke at Anderson. “It is really good to have the debate, we need to discuss what sort of media landscape we want in this country.” 

These are not glib words from Thompson.  

He has long been concerned about the overall state of New Zealand’s media. 

In a recent article for Public Media Alliance (PMA), which has 54 member countries, Thompson, who is currently its president, talked about journalism’s crisis. 

“The core of the crisis is financial even if the impacts are far wider. The mass media business model based on scarcity is in retreat and once powerful commercial publishers and broadcasters are finding it extremely difficult to find alternatives and maintain their independence. 

“Public service media are somewhat protected from these ravages, privileged as we are to receive government and public funding. 

“But we have our own concerns, including our vulnerability to shifts in government policy and political favour.” 

Currently the political winds are blowing in Thompson’s favour. 

A nine-year funding freeze under National ended before the election and now that Labour is the senior party in the new government RNZ is line for a substantial funding boost. 

In the next three years at least, the state broadcaster, already rejuvenated under Thompson’s reign, could rise to the most powerful position in its 90-year history. 

But Thompson made it clear in his PMA article that he believes “public service media have a unique responsibility to help their commercial counterparts survive”. 

He told Newsroom that the Government’s broadcasting policy was clear about RNZ’s role as a commercial free, public broadcaster. 

“We are not going to re-create TVNZ 6 or 7 (public service channels that were shut down in 2012). We are a multi-media organisation and TV will be a part of what we do, like radio and digital are. 

“Some of our programmes are already on the screen and we will be able to do more of that (with the extra money).” 

Thompson told Newsroom that he was in no hurry with RNZ+, something that will also assuage the concerns of Anderson and company, who are looking “for some runway” while they adapt to the changing environment. 

“This is really a two or three-year project. We are spending the next couple of months developing our plans and I see this year as one of planning and engagement.

“Some new things will happen by the end of this year but it won’t be fully in place until 2019 or 2020. We really want to get it right. Programmes that we produce will need to be different and of high quality. 

“I want to make sure that we have the right technology and skills in place.” 

Thompson said that his current policy of making RNZ’s content publicly available would continue. 

“We are really keen to share content and that includes any new content we produce, with other media if they want it.” 

The wider distribution of taxpayer funded journalism has won Thompson plenty of goodwill from the industry and politicians, but Curran will not want RNZ to amble its way into the future. 

The Dunedin MP has been very committed to her vision of better public service media and she will want to demonstrate that she is delivering on the promise. 

Pre-election Curran virtually ruled out a role for TVNZ in her public media plans but Mediaworks and Anderson are unlikely to let this drop.  

The Government gets a poor return on its investment in TVNZ but Labour has no appetite for selling it, despite there now being no clear reason to keep it. 

Sooner or later though, Curran will want something more from her other state-owned broadcaster. 

If it hasn’t already, then TVNZ’s board needs to give some serious thought to what this might be. 

Read more: Hit pause on RNZ+, urges Mediaworks CEO

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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