Cabinet has satisfied its own case for why the country needs a new public media entity, but with so few details available they’ve failed to make the case to the public, writes political editor Jo Moir.
Analysis: There are many unanswered questions about what the new public media entity will mean for RNZ and TVNZ, not least how much it might cost and whether there will be job cuts.
Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi refused to answer either when he made the announcement on Thursday, instead fobbing off the more detailed questions to the yet-to-be-established establishment board.
While it’s not for ministers to decide how newsrooms run, after several years of work (including lengthy reports from a business case working group) a few more details on what might be delivered and how were warranted.
At the least, announcing who is on the establishment board – Newsroom understands it has basically been picked already and will be announced in the next fortnight.
For now, it’s a case of reading between the lines of screeds of documents only made available after the announcement was made and Faafoi had finished his press conference.
The business case has outlined a range of possible outcomes and scenarios, along with feedback from affected media organisations, but none of this detail was fleshed out on Thursday.
Reading through the business case and cabinet paper, it certainly seems a full merger is more likely than was let on.
RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson told Newsroom he fully expects a complete merger between the two companies to take place down the track, which will raise plenty of questions about what that means for newsrooms, staff, resources, and the future of public journalism.
Faafoi didn’t rule it out either, but for now is concentrating on both RNZ and TVNZ being made subsidiaries under the new entity while a transition takes place.
Both have strong brand recognition, so it makes sense to keep them both in operation, especially while the establishment board does the grunt work to find a way to make TVNZ more focused on public good journalism while still being a commercial operator.
The targeted engagement done during the business case process identified the tensions between public media outcomes and those of a more commercial nature.
A Cabinet paper released on Thursday highlighted “balancing the need for the entity to achieve public media outcomes, the need to pursue commercial revenue and the imperative to work collaboratively with commercial and other providers to help ensure a diverse and resilient media eco-system’’.
Ministers noted it would be important that the new legislation developed later this year would make it “clear how the entity should manage these tensions where they occur’’.
Easier said than done.
To say TVNZ and RNZ haven’t already been adapting to the changing environment they’re operating in is untrue, it seems to be more about the legislation being behind.
There will be sadness within RNZ and TVNZ that the standalone organisations as they know them are coming to an end. Some will see it as fixing something that isn’t broke.
But even with increased audiences and revenue on the back of Covid-19, forecasts show the media sector is under pressure and in some ways Thursday’s announcement is less about fixing the now and more about having a new entity by the time things start to fall over.
Although it’s debatable whether it would be public media that would fall over first in that event.
Faafoi emphasised the “current public media system, and the legislation it’s based on, is focused on radio and television’’.
While that might be true for legislation, it’s not for how RNZ and TVNZ are currently operating and where they’re pumping resources.
Thompson told Newsroom RNZ has more audience on its digital and social channels than it does on its airwaves.
TVNZ has also put a lot of work into its platforms outside of linear TV – TVNZ On Demand and its rebuilt website and boosted team are reflective of that.
To say TVNZ and RNZ haven’t already been adapting to the changing environment they’re operating in is untrue; it seems to be more about the legislation being behind.
There are other factors, of course, like reaching all age groups and ethnicities.
RNZ is already producing a lot of content in these areas from short documentaries to podcasts and new programming, whereas TVNZ with its commercial imperatives is unsurprisingly more driven by ratings.
The guts of what the new entity will change on that front is making TVNZ do more of what RNZ is already doing well.
Then there is the impact it will have on the whole media sector and whether a beefed-up public model will just further damage or diminish the wider journalism pool.
The Government has marked out how it will avoid that happening.
In a Cabinet paper signing off on the announcement, ministers noted constraint would be put on the new entity’s “eligibility to act as a commissioning platform for content funded by NZ On Air. This would allow other public and private media greater certainty about the level of funding available to them’’.
The entity would also be prevented from building up excessive cash reserves and non-Crown revenue would be primarily invested in public media. “This would help support the entity to be complementary to private media and manage any market imbalance from combining TVNZ and RNZ’’.
But it won’t have escaped the Government’s attention that it means this new publicly funded entity is going to be launching at a time when trust in the media isn’t exactly sky-high, and an election is just around the corner.
The Cabinet paper also noted a healthy media sector could be maintained through collaboration in a number of ways, “including outsourcing services where appropriate, working with public or private entities to build capability (including in journalism) and allowing others to access its infrastructure’’.
Infrastructure has already been identified by several media executives as an area where duplications are costly and pointless.
Particularly so in television where all the various organisations have their own expensive set-ups doing the exact same thing to put programming to air that could be done from one central point.
Pooling of video content is another way to cut back costs and resources for those media outlets not on the receiving end of regular public funding.
All these decisions are still to be made and while the establishment board will make some of them, ultimately it will be for the new public media entity to decide the rest.
That’s meant to be up and running by July next year.
The first real nugget of information will come in May this year though, when it’s revealed how much Finance Minister Grant Robertson was prepared to throw at the new entity when he announces the Budget.
All of this work was due to have happened much earlier in the cycle, but Covid got in the way of that, like it has many things.
However, it won’t have escaped the Government’s attention that it means this new publicly funded entity is going to be launching at a time when trust in the media isn’t exactly sky-high, and an election is just around the corner.