How Labour can streamline broadcasting

The coalition government will spend $38 million more on “public service” audio-visual content and create yet another state agency, the Public Digital Media Funding Commission, which among other activities will support Radio NZ (RNZ+) producing video and maybe a whole channel.

Taxpayer support for radio and television is standard practice in most western countries, and for a small country ensures its citizens are not swamped by other cultures. However, the formula proposed is unduly complex.

We already have the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to advise on policy and total funding, NZ on Air to fund audio and video, the transmission SOE Kordia, RNZ and TVNZ, as well as Te Mangai Paho and Maori TV.  We don’t need another government-appointed “independent” media agency that produces no content.

The future will see more audio and video content distributed via the internet. But free-to-air television companies, such as TVNZ and Mediaworks, will see declining advertising revenues, as the digital giants Google, Facebook, etc, draw off the lion's share of digital advertising, without providing any New Zealand content. Subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime will capture more viewers, thereby further undermining the free-to-air channels.

NZ on Air recognises this reality and is funding a wider range of platforms outside mainstream TV channels. It says it is following the eyeballs but in the process is also helping to fragment distribution of video content.

If the state is to continue funding non-commercially viable video content, it also needs to ensure that is readily accessible to Kiwis, without searching around the web. This requires a single platform, where viewers can easily see what programmes are on offer, whether broadcast or on demand via the internet, and then watch them.

Overlooked platform
That platform is the underpowered Freeview, often overlooked by many commentators and decision makers, who use Sky. Freeview needs to leapfrog Sky by providing a seamless broadcast/internet electronic programme guide and service. Freeview should also be able to host other New Zealand-based subscription video producers, to provide competition for Sky, Netflix, etc.

Telstra is doing this in Australia with its new Roku-based box, which will host all free-to-air channels so viewers won’t need to switch between broadcast channels and internet sourced content.

Freeview is owned by the TV channels and RNZ. The minister should engage with its shareholders to ensure the Freeview+ platform delivers for all Kiwis, particularly those who cannot afford Sky.

The expansion of RNZ into video is a bold move being done on a half-hearted basis. If Labour really wants a public service non-advertising video channel, it should say so and allocate something in well excess of $100 million annually, plus heavy initial startup and capex costs. It would logically then sell TVNZ, which is falling in value.

A better option is to refine what we already have, using the increased funding.

Clunky process
NZ on Air does a good job allocating funds on a contestable basis to a wide variety of video content producers. However, the process is clunky and transaction costs high, as programme-makers also have to negotiate with the likes of TVNZ, MediaWorks and others for distribution. It is inevitably a monopoly, which creates tensions with applicants because they have no real choice.

While it not perfect, I suggest a simple amendment to the Broadcasting Act 1989, which provided for TVNZ to be funded directly, as with RNZ. The critical difference from the RNZ model would be that TVNZ would have to allocate all such funds to independent programme-makers. This proposal would provide another option for video content producers, from the contestable NZ on Air system, which would then exclude TVNZ as an outlet.

The government should abandon the notion that programmes produced by non-commercial broadcasters are always superior to those from commercial media. It is untrue and insults the professionalism of journalists working in commercial media, including newspapers. TVNZ’s Country Calendar is a first-rate programme, and there are others such as Fair Go and Sunday, which stack up well against Australia’s ABC. I have yet to see any liberal claim the New York Times is no good because of its reliance on advertising.       

Having strong viable media outlets is a vital component of a successful democracy. Print media are struggling because of the advertising revenue decline, as the Commerce Commission well knows. It would be a tragedy if the government delivers less real media choice to Kiwis, because of a preoccupation with non-commercial radio and television, and not the best interests of all New Zealanders.

Barrie Saunders is a former journalist with public broadcasting experience in New Zealand, Australia and the UK

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