Comment: The group of experts set up by the Government to oversee the business case for a new public broadcasting entity to replace TVNZ and RNZ has shown its hand. And, as Stephen Parker writes, RNZ loyalists will be relieved.

While it’s early days, a sense is emerging of how the recently formed Governance Group working on public sector media reform is going about its job. Chair Tracey Martin’s interview with Newsroom has provided a useful gauge.

Her comments offer immediate comfort to Radio NZ staff, and its loyal followers. Previously the Government indicated it wanted to disestablish both RNZ and TVNZ and create a single, rebranded state broadcaster. RNZ staffers were deeply worried about being Jonah swallowed by the Whale, with the radio operation’s iconic branding and public service culture lost along the way.

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That threat has dissipated. From a political management point of view, sensibly so. It would have been a mistake to underestimate how quickly the RNZ culture advocates would fire up if RNZ was genuinely under threat. The RNZ Concert experience would have looked like a polite chat.

The Governance Group is still working its way through options before it lands on a favoured design to present to the Cabinet. However the momentum is towards legislation which builds a new oversight body controlling TVNZ and RNZ.

Tracey Martin is threading a needle between achieving a result and avoiding an outcry. Retaining RNZ and TVNZ brands soothes the risk of a broadcasting civil war. And while an oversight body running RNZ and TVNZ looks like a softening of early ambitions, it may be judged sufficient to drive public broadcasting goals.

Clues about what those public broadcasting goals are have emerged from the strategic case which the Governance Group has finished. It has circulated the document to RNZ, TVNZ, and NZ on Air so far. It plans to circulate it wider to commercial media outlets and other tagged stakeholders soon. Judging by the Martin comments, it emphasises public broadcasters must do more for under-served or disconnected audiences – identified as Youth, Maori, Pasifika, and other ethnic groups.

It swings the state broadcasters, with a charter to rule them all, heavily towards public interest goals. Such objectives go to the heart of what will be a difficult debate. What is niche, what is popular, and what is revenue generating?

In theory, TVNZ ‘s commercially focused mandate is retained while also it would be answerable to a new charter and oversight body. That puts TVNZ between a rock and a hard place. And is something TVNZ Chief Executive, Kevin Kenrick, has been subtly warning against. His view is that content dictated by public interest goals is likely to be niche, with low or zero interest for advertisers and low value in terms of generating revenue – as he is currently obliged to do by the state. The Apprentice might be cringe material for the critics but turns a dollar.

This is not to prejudge the Governance Group for laudable intentions at an early juncture.

However, risk exists on a number of fronts.

The first is delivery. It is one thing to recognise what you want. Being able to deliver it to the intended audience is another matter. Especially in a market dominated by You Tube, Facebook, Netflix, and Google. For instance, few young people regularly watch linear TV or listen to the wireless.

Second, there is the matter of taste – do the audience like what you’re serving up. As a simplistic comparison, imagine media content like the school lunch disappointment revealed last week. The school board can spot kids who go hungry or eat poorly. It can arrange for free school lunches. Yet eventually they discover many kids aren’t consuming the food (content). Time and money has been wasted because good intent overshadowed understanding of content.

Then there’s the impact on the commercial media industry to weigh. Reporter numbers have halved over a decade. There were 637 media jobs lost or left vacant last year. Provincial content has plummeted. In just the past week Newshub (now owned by Discovery after its takeover of Mediaworks TV) started to shut down its Dunedin news bureau as it thins its TV news operation.

That’s putting aside the irony of the Government on one hand fast-tracking Overseas Investment Office approval of Discovery’s purchase of Mediaworks TV, seemingly without editorial protection, and on the other hand starting the Public Interest Journalism Fund to encourage reporter recruitment by commercial media outlets.

And, of course, thorny questions exist about social media giants which aggregate domestic news content for free, and operate in a loose regulatory environment.

To be fair, the Governance Group does acknowledge state and commercial media don’t operate in isolation. It may take some care that it doesn’t create greater stress on private media.

Yet public and commercial media share many of the same strategic goals. And, there is a risk, especially in the digital space, that a better resourced state owned broadcaster will become the elephant in the (news)room.

Stephen Parker is a former political editor for TV3. More recently he was the Chief Media Adviser at MFAT, and also worked in the Foreign Minister's office of both National and Labour-led governments.

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