We must still reform our public media sector in 2023

We must still reform our public media sector in 2023

Glen Kyne is senior vice-president & head of networks Japan, Australia, New Zealand & Pacific Islands for Warner Bros. Discovery.

OPINION: The plug has been pulled on the TVNZ-RNZ merger, so what happens now?

Instead of abandoning the progress already made, and the significant investment in time and energy by the broader sector, we can use what we have learnt to build a stronger public and private media sector.

Among the many options considered, there are a few that will drive significant positive impacts to New Zealanders and the local media industry. And in doing these, the Government should consider refocusing TVNZ on its primary role as New Zealand’s state broadcaster, while helping RNZ reach its full potential.

Notably, the announcement was silent on the future of TVNZ, its operating model and its role in fulfilling public media objectives including operating under a charter.

Let’s look at the situation today.

TVNZ operates as a wholly commercial business. Though it’s owned by the Government, its operations are funded primarily by selling advertising and so this is where it is rightly focused – delivering high value for its advertisers, while driving the strongest financial returns.

The Government as its shareholder has allowed TVNZ the privilege of dividend relief to Treasury. This is not a benefit that applies to any of us in the commercial media sector. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Between 2003 and 2011, TVNZ operated under a charter. A requirement of that charter was to commission and showcase New Zealand-made programmes, promote educational content for young people, and include more multicultural – including Māori – voices and perspectives within its programming.

The charter was abolished in 2011, leaving the state broadcaster, according to

then-Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman, ‘free to concentrate on being a successful television company’, albeit with the previously mentioned privileges of government ownership.

Where has that left us?

Today, New Zealand is one of the only western countries that doesn’t benefit from a broad multi-platform public media mandate for mainstream media, such as the UK’s BBC or Australia’s ABC. Our state broadcaster has no stated accountability or clear operational objectives towards the public good.

While the previous charter was by no means perfect, it did underpin a public media model, which ensured local people and stories at its core. Within the proposed legislation for ANZPM, there was a new charter which sought to achieve some of these goals. While the merger is now off the table, it doesn’t mean we have to throw the charter out with the bath water.

All New Zealanders benefit from high-quality, free-to-air local media which reflects our

communities, our history, and our culture. This local media content is and would continue to be developed by a thriving screen production community – made up of highly skilled creative talent across the board who produce world-class ‘Made in NZ’ content for local and international audiences.

TVNZ doesn’t have the monopoly on telling New Zealand stories, and nor should it be asked to. Many of the private media sector equally take pride in broadly investing in local content, committed to showcasing and developing local talent, with the ultimate goal of telling more New Zealand stories. Warner Bros. Discovery is proudly one of these organisations, and we work hard to share those stories with the world through our international networks, partners and channels.

Outlining a clear charter for TVNZ gives it a purpose and clear guidelines within which to operate – and will in turn give Aotearoa the chance to see more of itself reflected back on its screens.

On top of a strengthened charter, there are other ways to invest in the sector for future growth and development. Currently, our screen production community relies heavily on contestable funding to develop and create this content – it is the lifeblood of many in the content creation industry, and is a key component of an effective public media model.

The NZ On Air budget, and its contestable fund, needs to return to at least the full $74m that existed prior to budget cuts because of the now-scrapped ANZPM merged entity. This money gets directly pumped back into the sector. NZ On Air are well served to provide the infrastructure and incentives to deliver content to all audiences and to focus on public media outcomes.

There’s also the opportunity to take it one step further. A simple investment decision would be for TVNZ to return its commercial dividend to NZ On Air’s contestable fund. This would incentivise TVNZ to collaborate and be a key driver of success across the entire sector while helping to create more local content.

This does not change or reduce the ability of TVNZ to continue to derive its revenues from advertising. However, it does help ensure our state broadcaster supports public media outcomes and objectives.

Introducing these changes would see TVNZ take on a leadership role, not only as the biggest domestic player but also as a state broadcaster with a clear direction, that helps others thrive and succeed.

In asking TVNZ to make this strategic shift, we mustn’t ignore the role that RNZ has played in delivering public media to New Zealand. We also can’t ignore that it too needs help and the same opportunities should be assessed.

RNZ already does a great job as an open collaborator, if we can take what we have learnt from this process to double down on the approach this would be a win to local news and current affairs providers. The additional funding increase is welcome to help RNZ with its public media goals and collaboration efforts alike for our sector.

There is still a broader conversation to be had about the future of media, and how we as a nation navigate an increasingly fragmented landscape of information. This is an ongoing conversation as the viewing and listening habits of audiences continue to evolve.

Although the merger is over, the underlying challenges within the industry still exist so the conversation must continue. We cannot wait another 10 years to introduce a framework that ensures the sustainability and diversity of New Zealand media long into the future.

New Zealand is a country full of storytellers with rich, diverse stories waiting to be told so we must act now to ensure that the entire industry is able and ready to tell them.

The work’s been done, let’s use it. – Stuff.