Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi will need a good plan to win over Cabinet colleagues, the media industry and the public to the idea of combining TVNZ and RNZ, writes Stephen Parker
Kris Faafoi’s bid to bring more scale and substance to public media was reignited with the announcement of “The Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Board.” At a wild guess, no creative person was consulted on the title.
As the minister, he’s duty-bound to try and move things into a faster gear. Especially since his Government previously delayed the project.
The new governance group is now the sharp end of the fresh offensive. It comes in the shape of seven experienced media practitioners under the leadership of Tracey Martin, the former New Zealand First minister. She has been called to arms because, as she views it: “I get stuff done”.
And Generalissimo Martin has plenty to get done. Landing a viable plan which disestablishes RNZ and TVNZ and creates a new public broadcaster will be difficult. The group also has to consult the wider media industry, and shape a potential new Charter with public approval.
The governance group is to finalise the business case with consultants Deloitte by the middle of the year. Cabinet will make decisions on the options by the end of the year.
Patience is running out
Despite the renewed push, media sector patience is wearing thin. Some of this was obvious by the theme of reporter questions at the minister’s press conference.
There were pointed questions about the various advisory groups and consultants used over the past 18 months to work on a new public media entity, and which appear to have come to nothing.
Like many aspects of policy, the Government points to Covid as the reason for delay. Faafoi says the hiatus on the reform work over the past 12 months was instead spent on securing funding for the media so it could survive the pandemic. Now the public entity plan is “off the ice and the heat is on.”
The scepticism remained, though. One reporter suggested in his question that the delays effectively halt RNZ and TVNZ from making progress on their current capital spending plans. They are stymied on any future innovation while they wait for the Government to sort out their fate.
This media unease was something the governance group witnessed first-hand. They sat behind Faafoi as he fielded the barrage of questions during the press conference. It would have been cold comfort to witness the minister bounce all tricky questions as something for the governance group and business case to resolve. And, the clock is ticking.
Who’s on the Group.
The factors leading to Tracey Martin’s appointment have the sniff of political calculation. She is not known as a media industry leader. However, Faafoi may well need an ally who can lobby Cabinet ministers, fight off Treasury officials, and browbeat consultants writing business plans. There is also the matter of achieving consensus among panel members.
Many on the panel have either been TVNZ or RNZ employees, recipients of NZ On Air funding, or have experience of network transmission. But that is not to say there won’t be differing views. One example is Michael Anderson. His presence may offer some comfort to the wider commercial media players. Anderson is the former chief executive of MediaWorks, who has previously been highly critical of TVNZ’s commercial dominance in the marketplace.
There are few details about just what the new public media entity will look like. Faafoi says this depends on what the governance group, and business plan, determines as viable.
What we do know is that both RNZ and TVNZ are to be disestablished and reborn into a blended entity. It’s proposed to be a mixed funding model – revenue from government funding and advertising. And to ensure a public service ethos – a strongly worded charter is also promised. How all that is manageable with a price tag acceptable to the Minister of Finance is an open question.
Both Faafoi and Martin can sense frustration is building.
Curveball for the media market
For sure, the creation of a new public media broadcaster is a curveball for the commercial media sector. And behind closed doors the governance group may face some strong words about distorting the market. On a simple level, it’s safe to assume a RNZ/TVNZ entity would combine efforts with a news and content website. And it’s reasonable to assume this would be a commercial platform with advertising. The combined traffic of TVNZ/RNZ website will push it past Newshub (which is currently ahead of both) and start to close in on Stuff and The New Zealand Herald. Commercial companies may feel the state is gleaning an unfair advantage. A case study of such unhappiness is in the UK where BBC Online carries advertising – to the chagrin of commercial media companies.
Will the new public service entity get started
It is a line call if the new public service entity will get off the ground in the short-term. There are more reasons to sense it will stall rather than fly. Will it be simple, affordable, achievable, and well received? The proposal doesn’t look simple, the price tag is unclear, and support around the Cabinet table is uncertain. Being well received is another matter entirely. Does the daily audience of Morning Report, or the weekly audience of Kim Hill want the unique RNZ culture eroded? Or, for that matter, do the aged but loyal audience of TVNZ and the lovers of Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells feel a desire for earnestness?
Hunger for change fades
The Covid pandemic has had something of a silver lining for the news industry. Ratings and audience numbers were strong through 2020. Our outlets have been doing a good job. So, despite the existential economic threat the media industry has faced, and partially survived thanks to some government support packages, the public sentiment for change may actually be softer. Status quo seems easier.
Yet the long-term issues remain for traditional players. On a simple level, fewer people watch TV or read newspapers. More people watch You Tube. Advertising has shifted, dramatically, to digital platforms like Facebook. As my younger daughter says, her generation only watches TV news with the family during a national crisis. The rest of the time they don’t bother.
The elephant in the room
Reforming public broadcasting is seen by Faafoi as one of the things he can do strengthen a pillar of our media. It’s front-of-mind for the Wellington-centric beltway – less so for the commercial players. Arguably, plans to regulate the digital media giants should already be on the way to a Cabinet meeting. Australia has made progress on securing agreements for funding from the big tech companies for their domestic news services. Here, our minister is relying on a promise from the social media giants, who are news aggregators of locally sourced news, for a similar deal. Yet as time goes by he’s going to need his stick. He might need a big one, and he might need it soon.
Putting the puzzle together
Putting aside the importance of harnessing revenue for the commercial media players, there’s general consensus between the media, Faafoi, and his governance group that the future for public media needs investment in digital platforms that offer content attractive to younger audiences.
Other countries are wrestling with similar problems. In Ireland, a new Media Commission has been formed and is involving the public in designing a new system. The British House of Commons has just released a select committee report on reforming the UK’s public media. Both jurisdictions have licence fees, and both are arguing for more state revenue. As one figure put it, they are trying to “ride both horses” – paying for the old while trying to also buy the new.
Here, and on the outside looking in, it’s difficult to see how the Government will build this house. It has the look of first time buyers choosing plans for a new home, except they don’t know the size mortgage they can have, what revenue they could get from renting a few rooms, and if the neighbours – the commercial media – want them to move next door.
The Broadcasting Minister may well be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Board will oversee the completion of a business case into forming the entity.
It is chaired by Tracey Martin. Other members include Glen Scanlon, Michael Anderson, Sandra Kailahi, Bailey Mackey, William Earl, John Quirk, and Dr Trisha Dunleavy