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A public media platform

New Zealand desperately needs a complete public media platform. By that we mean a public service television, radio, website and other online media - all combined and working together to inform, educate, entertain and encourage participation of New Zealanders.

Our need is strongest in the area of television. Every other developed country has a government funded public service television network, usually with many channels and usually non-commercial. But slowly New Zealand has become the saddest, worst served group of viewers in the western world.

We desperately need something like the ABC in Australia, BBC in the UK or RTE in Ireland. A network of television, radio, websites and online applications that:

  • aims to educate, inform, entertain and encourage participation
  • treats audiences with respect
  • puts all of New Zealand on screen, including the less marketable bits like old people, ethnic minorities, and anyone who doesn’t have perfect skin.

A public media platform could be established several ways and each option has its pros and cons.

The TVNZ 7 option

TVNZ7 was a digital television channel available on Freeview and Sky, from 2007 to 2012. It screened an extended OneNews at 8pm, had hourly news updates and commissioned a variety of factual shows such as The Court Report, Backbenchers and Media 7. These shows were entirely studio based (which is cheaper than filming on location) and repeated throughout the week.

TVNZ 7 would have cost $15m annually to keep running, though like any media platform, the overall budget is flexible depending on how many programmes are produced and the quality of them.

The relationship with TVNZ might be a challenge. If the new channel was in-house it would probably be neglected by the commercial broadcaster, as TVNZ 7 was. If it was separate of TVNZ, the cost of accessing news resources would need to be managed by government with all costs carefully contained.

The RNZ Option

RNZ are keen to move into video, and there’s no denying they have the public service passion for the job. RNZ is already making video versions of some radio programmes, such as Checkpoint with John Campbell and recent podcasts.

RNZ has an extensive news service in place and newsrooms around the country so it has resources and infrastructure ready to go. Also RNZ has a modest online presence through their news and Wireless websites, and their own Freeview channel, all of which would grow to accommodate the increased video production.

The cost to add the new television channel to RNZ would be similar to the TVNZ 7 Option - $15m, but that again would depend on what types of programmes are to be made.

The serious shortcoming with this is that a significant proportion of New Zealand still use old-fashioned free-to-air television. Most viewers turn on TV and go through the channels starting at 1, then 2, then 3 and so on. Getting viewers to come across to a new digital channel takes time, and if audiences are small then the channel is vulnerable -as we saw with TVNZ 7.

The TVNZ Option

How great would it be if TVNZ 1 and TVNZ 2 were ad-free and screened a range of intelligent, entertaining, quality television programmes? How expensive would that option be too?

TVNZ is in many ways the obvious choice for a public television platform like the BBC or the ABC in Australia. It’s our main television network and it once had a strong public-service tradition – Telethons, regional news, children’s kidult programmes and Sunday night arts series. But these days the people who run the company are exclusively marketing and advertising focussed.

TVNZ management and the Board appointed by Government would need a huge shift in focus (in other words a significant clean-out and replacement) with public service expertise. But that’s not impossible, and the current institutional bias might help ease the transition to a public media platform, preventing too many radical changes. Then again it might also prevent any real change at all.

A significant benefit of this option is that TVNZ has a huge audience and that makes using it as a public media platform much safer. The other options require building an audience from scratch and that takes a long time. TV3, Prime and Māori TV still struggle because they can’t break viewer’s habits. And TVNZ7 was still a fledgling channel with small audiences which made it vulnerable to losing its funding.

A public service TVNZ wouldn’t suffer the same fate because from day one, the audience would be massive. The awareness of the change would be huge. What’s more, those large audiences will be pleased with the changes. Research shows that most NZers expect TVNZ to be a state broadcaster and to hold to public service values, so this would be a ‘natural fit’.

TVNZ’s raked in $282m from advertising in 2016 so removing advertising from TVNZ would cost approximately the same amount, though it would be less because there’d be no need for TVNZ’s sales department saving $30m.

$252m is a lot of money to pay each year though not as much as Australia AUD$1.03billion or the UK £3.7billion.

But there are other ways of achieving public media objectives and spending less. Only removing adverts from TVOne would cost $150m annually. That’s based on slightly less than half of TVNZ total expenses, and allowing for savings from NZOnAir funding of around $42m and an extra $35m for News.

The Web Only Option

This option often appeals to urban commentators and twitter-based media commentators who live their lives online. It’s the idea of completely doing away with TV broadcasting and putting everything online in a website and letting people watch what they want.

The multiple reasons this isn’t reasonable are explained here, but put simply research shows there are still a majority of New Zealanders using ‘legacy’ media. If we don’t make public media available to all the public, it ceases to be public (and becomes ‘urban, twitterati media’).

Such a scenario would limit access to large parts of New Zealand who for multiple reasons cannot receive broadband internet. The move to online is happening and quite quickly, so there’s no denying it’s the future. But moving everyone to an online platform is pretty much a generational shift and would need many households to be financially assisted to pay for UFB data.

The NZBC Option

Sounding decidedly retro, this option combines RNZ with a non-commercial TVNZ to create a more efficient single organisation that manages NZ’s public media. But that’s where the old-fashioned similarities end.

An integrated TVNZ and RNZ would have the resources to launch several digital only channels, stations, websites and apps targeting parts of NZ that really are missing out currently – Pasifika, Asian and other minorities are all under-represented on our screens and media in general. Older audiences and younger audiences need targeted media that isn’t just an exercise in marketing. The possibilities are endless when the need to make profits from advertising, is removed.

If RNZ was amalgamated back into TVNZ, there’d be savings from less management and governance costs. In 2016 TVNZ spent $1.2m on its Chief Executive alone, one of several costs that could be reduced.

NZOnAir, could be part of the new organisation too, with its funding going directly to the commissioning department, and saving several millions in duplicated management and governance roles between the three bodies.

It’s exactly like the BBC, but smaller and in New Zealand.

Summary

There are many ways to bring public media to NZ and the BPM Trust advocates for most of these options. They all have pros and cons but one thing is very certain - they are all better than what we have now.

Working for better radio, TV and online media for all New Zealanders


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