Reimagining Public media in Aotearoa
The only thing we can't afford to do is nothing
Back in February, Pundit.co.nz published a column by former Minister of Broadcasting Steve Maharey on the government's cancellation of its proposed public media reforms. There's a lot in his column that we agree on.
I agree that our country needs properly-resourced public media, and that this is fundamentally different from state-controlled media, which the proposed new entity was at risk of being. A point also made by Better Public Media and others in their select committee submissions. I also agree that public media is a different beast from commercial media, despite both being in the game of creating and distributing media to the public.
Finally, I agree that this government's attempts to futureproof our publicly-owned broadcasters has been poorly handled. It’s clearly been sacrificed on the altar of short-term electoral anxiety, like too many other forward-looking projects.
However, I suspect the RNZ MediaWatch team would likely raise an eyebrow at a couple of points in the column. For example, it's true that TVNZ, as a State-Owned Enterprise, is structurally dedicated to earning revenue, serving advertisers and paying a dividend. But that doesn’t mean it has a future that way.
For some time now, TVNZ has barely covered its costs, let alone made a profit. In any given year it's just as likely to require a bailout as return a dividend. This situation seems unlikely to change, as it continues to lose advertisers and viewers to online competitors, both social media and streaming platforms. If left to limp along as a for-profit, the few really useful things it still owns (free-to-air broadcast infrastructure, studios, etc) are at risk of neglect and asset stripping. Just like what happened to the railway infrastructure between when it was privatised by the Bolger National government, and returned to public ownership by the Clark Labour government.
Another thing I question in Steve’s column is swallowing the talking point that a public media entity, if allowed to sell ads, would eat the media industry's lunch. The fact is, as a commercial broadcaster that can fall back on being bailed out by its state owner, TVNZ is already doing that.
A public media entity is unlikely to squeeze more ad revenue from TV1 and TV2 than a purely commercial entity can. Given their operations would be properly subsidised by public funding, and not for profit, they would probably need less ad revenue, not more. Besides, as mentioned above, the lunch-stealing bully driving commercial media outlets to the brink over the last decade or so - TVNZ included - has not been TVNZ.
Returning to points of agreement, public media does need to represent a plurality of cultural perspectives, and it’s true that the forerunners of RNZ and TVNZ haven't always done that. But this is one reason why, although I take Steve's point about the myopic focus on funding "content creation" in his previous column, I'm not convinced a monolithic public broadcaster is the best solution.
I think Clare Curran's RNZ+ was a better proposal than Kris Faafoi's replacement, for solving the problems facing public media in Aotearoa. It’s a terrible shame that both Curran's tenure as Minister and RNZ+ were scuppered by what looked to me like Dirty Politics in action. But I think we can come up with a better plan than both.
So what now?
There's no question in my mind that RNZ needs and deserves a significant boost in funding. Not just in operational funding to cover day-to-day operations and maintenance of existing infrastructure either. They also need big chunks of development funding, for upgrading and modernising operations and expanding their infrastructure for digital services.
As for TVNZ, as I've indicated, I think its days as a viable business are numbered. A brave government would transition it back to being a fully not-for-profit public broadcaster. With sufficient funding that its television assets could be protected and upgraded for public media work.
The preparation done for the failed merger with RNZ could then form a basis for ongoing cooperation between the two public broadcasters. For example, TVNZ sharing its video production facilities with video producers at RNZ, working together on research and presentation of news and current affairs, and integrating the planning and delivery of digital services. Once TVNZ fully adapted to its new public media role, and with a few years of observing how cooperation with RNZ worked out, the viability of a unified public broadcaster could be re-evaluated.
But beyond this, there's so much more we could do to bring public media in the digital age. For example, we don't expect RNZ or TVNZ to lease access to radio or television masts from their for-profit competitors, and there's no reason they need to be leasing access to the digital equivalents. Our public broadcasters could work together to build and maintain publicly-owned infrastructure to store and serve their own websites and streaming media.
True, this is outside their traditional areas of activity and would require them to employ new people with different sets of skills. But the same was true of RNZ moving into web publishing and podcasting, and TVNZ moving into digital broadcasting and web video. Yet they've done a remarkably good job of all of this, especially given the limited resources available. Bringing more digital expertise into both organisations would help their decision-makers keep abreast of changing technology and plan accordingly.
It's also true that setting this up would require an injection of public funding. But with good planning, there's a good chance it would reduce the ongoing costs of their digital services as they grow in scale and audience, as I hope they would. Which would free up operational funding for other uses in years to come.
Whatever the future of public media ends up being for Aotearoa, and however much it ends up cost, the one thing we definitely can't afford to do is nothing. Sadly, given the lack of public debate on it during the election campaign, that seems to be exactly what the next government is planning to do, regardless of who wins.
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