RNZ boss Paul Thompson is not in favour of a merger with TVNZ.

“It would be a big step with a lot of risks, the DNA of the organisations is very different,” Thompson told Newsroom.

Thompson, who has been attending a conference of public broadcasters in Seoul, Korea, was responding to TVNZ’s CEO Kevin Kenrick’s suggestion that the Government may look to combine its own broadcasting operations as the media sector consolidates.

His reaction to the blue sky thinking of Kenrick will surprise no one in the industry. The two organisations are chalk and cheese.

“RNZ is unique in that it is non-commercial, our mandates are so different (TVNZ’s is to make as much money as it can) that the damage would be incalculable,” said Thompson.

“It would be a mistake, in my view, to build any new model around cost savings that would be quite short-term.”

While he was not in favour of a merger, Thompson said Kenrick was right to raise his concerns about the viability of New Zealand’s news media.

“It is good that we’re finally having some of these thorny conversations, this is a very challenging environment for advertising-supported news media.

“We can’t afford to be complacent about the future of New Zealand journalism.

“I agree with Kevin that consolidation in the commercial sector is inevitable.”

A proposed merger between print and online giants Stuff and NZME was turned down by the Commerce Commission and rejected by the High Court, but Stuff’s Australian owner is merging with another media company and the combined entity will look to exit the New Zealand market.

Stuff has already sold or closed many of its community publications.

Local TV and radio broadcaster MediaWorks has been for sale forever as its owner, a US fund manager, is not a long-term holder of media assets.

Thompson said it was clear from the conference in Seoul that many of the world’s biggest public broadcasters had been battered by the same winds that are whipping around their commercial counterparts.

“Big public broadcasters BBC, CBC, ABC are really challenged by the Netflix and Amazons – they can no longer get the best talent and the biggest audiences. I found it very sobering.”

Thompson said discussions with TVNZ were “ongoing, frank and collegial”.

“In terms of regional news coverage there is lots of scope to cooperate. I think content sharing is going to be better than a forced marriage.”

Government’s role

Thompson’s firm stance comes as the new Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi, weighs his options.

Faafoi, a former TVNZ journalist, will be wondering what he can do to shore up the country’s media in the face of an existential crisis.

Facebook and Google are taking most of the digital advertising dollars, traditional print and television advertising revenues continue to decline, and established news providers are withdrawing from regional New Zealand.

PwC recently estimated that free-to-air television’s share of the advertising market would fall from 18 percent to 13.5 precent in five years’ time.

Kenrick’s concerns about the future are no doubt based on similar analysis, and they should ring alarm bells for Faafoi because TVNZ is currently performing quite well and paying a dividend.

TVNZ’s director of sales, Paul Maher, told Newsroom last week that the network had experienced revenue growth for the first time in recent years.

“The cost efficiency of TV advertising in New Zealand is very good and the supply of inventory (available advertising space on TV) is almost being balanced by demand.”

Surplus inventory created by smaller channels like Prime has kept pricing in check for many years.

Maher said TVNZ had taken some advertising share from its rivals, and that Three’s big hits like The Block and Dancing with the Stars – although they had drawn big audiences – had not really impacted TVNZ.

Maher wouldn’t confirm TVNZ’s share because the networks swap the figures on a confidential basis, but it is understood to be just over 62 percent of the market.

A big part of the reason for TVNZ’s strong result is its domination of the 5.30pm to 7.30pm time slot.

The Chase and 1 News on TV1 coupled with Shortland Street and Home and Away on TV2, effectively shut out MediaWorks.

Newshub and The Project, despite some good nights, can’t get any sustained traction.

Aussie reviews Newshub 

MediaWorks has been casting around for an answer and recently hired former TVNZ News boss, Australian Anthony Flannery, to review its 6pm news programme.

Flannery is now a PR man for Vodafone in Sydney but was in charge of 1 News from 2007 till the end of 2011.

He was a big advocate of “live crosses” and not renowned for wanting his reporters to do worthy, serious news stories, preferring them to focus on more popular or tabloid fare to drive up the ratings.

When media commentator and former TV producer and presenter Janet Wilson (wife of another former TVNZ news boss Bill Ralston) was once asked to describe TVNZ news’ production style under Flannery, she replied it was “dressed up like a hooker on K Road on a Saturday night”.

If Flannery stays true to form, and Newshub run with his advice, expect to see more live crosses to news events (even if they are over) and more emphasis on the production parts of the programme like weather, headlines and teasers.

One thing that Flannery is certain to have pointed out, although everyone at Three is well aware of it, is the disaster that remains at 5.30pm.

The lead-in to 6pm is a key factor in driving the news ratings and until Three’s programmers stop the merry-go-round of programmes being tried in that slot and find one that will grab some audience off TV1’s The Chase, no amount of tinkering with the news is going to have much impact.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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