The Budget announcement that the promised $38 million for public broadcasting had been slashed to just $15 million puts RNZ+ on ice. But that might be a relief for some, writes Mark Jennings. 

Like a lot of her colleagues, Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran took a cut in the Budget allocations.

Prior to the election Curran promised a major revamp of public service media. RNZ and NZ on Air were to get an additional $38 million between them.

The state broadcaster took the bulk of the money to develop Curran’s grand plan of a full service television channel to complement its radio content.

RNZ+, as it was named, won applause from public media supporters who had watched RNZ starve under a National government. The same outfit also cut TVNZ loose from its charter requirements bringing a swift end to public service channels TVNZ 6 and 7.

Yesterday’s Budget announcement that the promised $38 million had been slashed to just $15 million was met with an exasperated groan from public media advocates.

“It’s bitterly disappointing that she has delivered less than 40 percent of the original amount,” said Peter Thompson, spokesman for Better Public Media.

“Public media is always the runt of the litter … I fear this is not enough to make any sort of impact.”

Curran, of course, was putting a politician’s face on it.

“$15 million is still significant, it’s not to be sneezed at.

“I know people will be disappointed and I accept our manifesto has not be meet. I have had to compromise as have nearly all my colleagues.“

Curran agreed that the word “TV” was missing from her media release announcing the new level of funding.

That’s consistent with recent speeches where she has referred to a free-to-air television service for RNZ+ suddenly as “ a long-term goal”.

Curran knew that Finance Minister Grant Robertson was reining in her spending plans.

There must now be serious doubts over the amount and quality of TV content RNZ+ will be able to produce.

“There was a big opportunity to overhaul their outdated technology and do something really ambitious. It’s pretty clear that is not going to happen now.”

According to Thompson (who is also a lecturer in media studies) RNZ+ needs somewhere between $25 million and $30 million to have a chance of success.

“Back in 2011 TVNZ said it required about $17 million to keep the public service channel, TVNZ 7 going and they already had all equipment and services in operation.

“If RNZ got the whole $15 million they might be able to make some inroads (with television) but they are not going to get it all.”

A former senior RNZ staffer described the Budget as a “slap in the face” for the broadcaster.

“There was a big opportunity to overhaul their outdated technology and do something really ambitious. It’s pretty clear that is not going to happen now.”

In some ways RNZ CEO Paul Thompson is likely to be relieved.

He was facing the almost-impossible task of producing quality television without enough money, especially given the lack of network infrastructure.

Curran’s and the public’s expectations will be much lower now.

Given the reduction in the size of the funding boost, any additional video is likely to be more ‘on-demand’ rather than content screened in a traditional linear broadcast.

Thompson will feel freer to continue his strategy of developing the RNZ website and pushing more content online.

He might also try and convince incoming chairman, Jim Mather, that RNZ needs to invest much more in serving provincial audiences instead of building up its TV capability.

On the downside, Thompson will find himself in an arm wrestle with NZ on Air over the reduced money pot.

Some industry commentators are predicting that the funding body could get up to 50 percent of the $15 million, which would leave RNZ+ stuck in first gear.

“The question is when will the money come? We will get to next year’s Budget and there will be other holes to plug, other demands on the money.”

NZ on Air’s new chair, Ruth Harley, is a tough and determined operator, as well as a consummate networker.

Harley and her CEO, the very experienced Jane Wrightson, will know that this is their chance to increase NZ on Air’s weight in the market, especially now that is “platform agnostic”, and can fund almost any media company if it has an innovative idea that serves the public interest.

There are signs that Curran would be happy to see media other than RNZ get a decent share of the extra cash.

“I am very mindful that underfunding stretches right across the whole media sector,” she told Newsroom.

“I am preparing a paper to go to Cabinet soon that focuses on NZ on Air.”

Curran has also signalled that she is going to lean heavily on the recommendations of a ministerial advisory group headed by Auckland businessman, Michael Stiassny.

The group includes some sharp minds but seems limited in terms of current media experience.

A respected industry observer with close knowledge of the group told Newsroom that “Stiassny won’t be impressed by soft words, he will want to see clear realistic plans from RNZ and NZ on Air”.

“He is very efficient and will make things happen.”

Curran seems to have struggled to get on top of the broadcasting portfolio since she became Minister, but her moves to bring Mather, Harley and Stiassny into the mix is likely to change that.

Will it be enough to revitalise, or at least strengthen, public media in this country?

Better Public Media’s Peter Thompson fears it won’t.

“The question is when will the money come? We will get to next year’s Budget and there will be other holes to plug, other demands on the money.”

Curran remains optimistic and says she has been instructed by Robertson to prepare a clear business case for the money public media needs. “We are going to truly look at what long-term funding is needed,” she said.

“This will be a serious piece of work which I don’t think has ever been done before. We will make this happen.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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