One Question Quiz
Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

BusinessApril 8, 2024

What happens when you ask 20 NZ media CEOs two big questions?

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

Newshub and TVNZ are only the most visible examples of the polycrisis impacting New Zealand’s media. Duncan Greive set out to diagnose the problem, and maybe figure out some cures, by asking media CEOs a couple of big questions.

This is an introduction to Above the Fold: 20 Media CEOs, Two Big Questions – a five-part series running all this week and featuring senior executives responding to two heady questions confronting the New Zealand media sector.

It’s hard to remember now, but for a couple of years there, the media in Aotearoa was running hot. We were part of an all-time global high for scripted TV shows. The government pumped $100m in Covid-related communications largely onto TV, print and radio, making a major contribution to an unexpectedly buoyant advertising market. There were new rebates for people making games, and expanded criteria for those making films and series. The lockdown economy, flush with printed money and near-zero interest rates, had made investment in projects easier to procure.

Now things feel very different. The most visceral and visible elements are the proposed closure of Newshub and elimination of TVNZ’s Sunday and Fair Go – both of those are currently proposals and should become concrete this week – but those who screen and stream TV are hardly alone. In fact, almost every part of New Zealand’s media is finding itself somewhere between malaise and apocalypse. 

A brief summary: globally, scripted TV shows have plummeted from a high of 633 to 481 last year. While our creative-sector rebates remain, the local impact of last year’s prolonged Hollywood strike remains. Additionally, a sharp rise in interest rates has stymied financing while making shooting films more expensive, meaning many screen workers are waiting out lengthy gaps between productions.

The government is making good on its plan to slash ad budgets. A double dip recession has smashed advertising, with both consumers and businesses keeping their hands in their pockets. The result is losses, layoffs or outright closures everywhere. It’s part of an interconnected global media polycrisis which is impacting networks, news, games, film, advertising and TV production alike. (Music is affected but absent from this piece, as I delved into its issues late last year).

Typically, even when things aren’t going great, organisational leaders have to pretend like they are. Over summer, the NZ Herald’s Shayne Currie ran an important series of questions past media industry leaders. Most who responded seemed suspiciously optimistic about their own prospects, despite 2023 being acknowledged as a super rough year. The sins of omission were proven within weeks, as the mass layoffs began to rain down.

I wondered whether the fact media is now indisputably on fire might have allowed its leaders to be at least a little more open, so asked more than 20 senior figures, the majority of them CEOs, a pair of questions. One was about honestly expressing the problem. The second was about finding a way out. The questions were:

1. What’s the biggest issue in your corner of the media industry right now?


2. What do you think is the best idea you’ve heard (or thought of) to provide a durable long-term fix?

I was largely impressed with the responses. Almost all of our senior execs took the time to reply, and many brought a level of candour which is rare-to-nonexistent in the typically risk-averse boss world (give or take the odd sparsely-viewed select committee hearing). The collected scale runs to over 10,000 words, and together they form a chilling but illuminating window into the fears, desires and intentions of a group which likely represents a clear majority of our domestic media by audience and headcount. These include the heads of TVNZ, Sky, RNZ, Stuff, NZME, Mediaworks, Warner Brothers Discovery, Whakaata Māori, NZ on Air and the NZ Film Commission, along with the many more smaller or less public-facing organisations.

The responses were so interesting that we’re going to run parts of them all as a series which runs throughout this week. The intention is to use this devastating moment to have an honest and public conversation about what bedevils the various industries which perch under that overbroad term media – and, crucially, what might be done to provide long-term solutions. Below I’ve plucked out some quotes which summarise the mood, and get at what people have started to coalesce around as potential salves for the crises. Some are familiar, but a number are fresh, or expressed with far more urgency than ever before. 

A note: For the purposes of this piece, all these quotes are unattributed due to the selective way they’ve been deployed. But all respondents, except one, have agreed to be named in the full version starting tomorrow. Today’s instalment is a bit guess-who-don’t-sue, I know – but it also helps paint a picture of the collective vibe in the room. So consider this a taste of what’s to come, with some crucial details left blank, for now). Check back each day this week from 5am for the latest drop.

There’s a big black sky over my town

“The biggest issue is that I can’t see a future for what we do.” – a publisher

“The media is like a low income family… our costs are going up, but our income is either static or in some cases (those entirely dependent on advertising) it is nosediving.” – a news organisation founder

There is a collapse of advertiser-driven local models across all parts of the media and communications system, driven by competition from global platforms, and recessionary pressures.” – a public sector chief executive

“The online giants are swallowing 90 cents out of every digital news advertising dollar, not paying tax on the vast majority of it and not following the same regulations local media are subject to.” – the CE of a TV network

“The biggest challenge for the Māori media sector is a sustainable funding model. Over the next three years, the Māori media sector is set to lose $52m of time-limited funding provided by the previous government.” – a public sector CE

“We’re larger than any local player, larger than TradeMe, so consumer demand for our product is not the issue – it’s the market power imbalance that takes 90c in every digital advertising dollar… it’s not our incompetence, but how the digital ecosystem works across advertising.” – a CEO of a major news organisation

“The biggest issue we are facing in NZ film is the challenge of raising finance to tell big, bold New Zealand stories.” – a public sector CE

“Local content is by a huge factor more expensive than international, so it’s the obvious place to go for short-term savings.” – a screen production CEO

“It’s a long time to be in a flat or recessionary environment, and it takes a toll on the teams working hard every day. [But] with a constant stream of bad news, I’m conscious that we don’t talk ourselves further down, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.” – a diversified media company CEO

Audiences will be so much poorer if all we can ‘afford’ is a pipeline of acquired overseas shows and whatever the YouTube algorithm decides to feed us. I don’t think as a country we can afford to let that happen.” – a screen production CEO

Will you pick me up again?

“The best idea is… to levy the platforms on their domestic revenue. A 1% levy would result in funds equivalent to the the PIJF. A 2% levy would be a game-changer. The government already levies all manner of goods to protect local industries – why not a levy to protect democracy?” – a publisher

“[We should look at] levelling the playing field so that our local platforms are not disadvantaged by the presence in the market of global platforms that take the majority of the ad revenue; requiring local quotas on global streamers has been done in other markets.” – a public sector CE

“Where global tech companies are taking our news content to keep consumers engaged on their platforms and to train their AI tools, they should be compensating the platforms they’re scraping this content from.” – a CE of a TV network

“It’s not like we don’t protect other industries in Aotearoa – when retailers were going to the wall thanks to online shopping businesses, the Government legislated for GST on imported goods.” – a CEO of a major news organisation

“[We could] allow subscriptions to be tax deductible, or tax rebates for local news investment, like what has occurred with large screen productions.” – a public sector CE

“Legislatively, we all want is an even playing field against the streamers and FAANGs [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google].” – a production company CEO

“This is a global, systemic, market distortion that requires strong government policy response to address. To hear politicians talk of TVNZ suspending a dividend as creating an uneven playing field with WBD-Three, while ignoring the lack of contribution by the FAANGs, is baffling!  I don’t want to be discussing how our businesses and creators must ‘do more with less’ when millions of dollars are haemorrhaging out of our economy with next-to-no-tax paid on them.” – a screen production company CEO

“[We need to] establish one screen funding agency incorporating NZ On Air, the NZ Film Commission and possibly Te Māngai Pāho – and give that new agency the ability to monitor outcomes.”  – a production company founder

Our regulatory environment needs a major overhaul. We have media regulation and responsibility spread over a number of different ministries – MCH is responsible for media policy, MBIE for communications policy, the DIA for censorship, TPK for Māori media, Treasury monitors our state-owned broadcasters… There is an opportunity for a new single regulator to absorb all communications regulation (akin to OFCOM in the UK), with sub-committees to deal with specialised areas. This would allow a single strategic vision across the sector, and the ability to more easily modernise regulation, be more proactive and deal quickly with the issues facing the sector. ” – a production company CEO

Many advertisers are starting to include considerations around climate impact in their media buying decisions. I’d love to see that expanded to include the positive social impacts of locally produced content and platforms that serve local communities.” – a diversified media company CEO

Netflix ANZ has invested a billion dollars into Australian content over the past four years. A billion. And the ‘NZ’ side of Netflix ‘ANZ’ has received … zero. Those billion dollars haven’t been spent out of the goodness of Netflix’s heart – it’s because the Australian government has taken a much stronger stance on this than we have, to the benefit of both Australian audiences and the Australian economy.” – a screen production company CEO

Maybe we could make it happen?

While this moment is fraught with danger, and the overall tone of the responses was of quite serious fear that key institutions could irreversibly collapse, that was not the only sentiment. There is an increasing consensus that a levy on digital revenues could form the basis of a fund to start equitably delivering a sustainable revenue stream to sit alongside advertising, subscriptions and government funding. Likewise, now that the screen production rebate has been applied to some domestic productions, including those attracting NZ on Air funding, one of the key arguments against applying it to news, for example, is essentially gone.

There is also near unanimity about the messy regulatory environment producing inequitable and illogical outcomes. Just this week I saw a highly defamatory advertisement about a prominent broadcaster, made to look like a story on a rival news website. Run on television or a news platform, this would likely incur grave financial penalties. Yet it’s just another humdrum day’s work on Facebook. From the ban on TV advertising on Sunday mornings, to an outmoded and costly screen censorship regime, to the vast sums of untaxed revenue piped offshore, there’s a strong sense that just fixing a bundle of outmoded legislation (or applying it to platforms too) could make a big difference.

Most refreshingly, some execs were optimistic in a way which did not remotely come across as Pollyanna. “The biggest issue is probably mindset. There’s a lot of volatility, but actually on the flipside of that, there’s a lot of opportunity,” said one, who plans to spend most of May overseas chasing it. “It’s a marketplace of partnerships, not a buyer-seller environment.” They believe that those making content need to go to platforms and funders with finance or revenue plans, not simply a request for a budget.

Lastly, there was also no attempt to defend the status quo or expectation of a return to a prior era. “The audience is always right,” said one screen industry veteran. “There is no future for any industry that attempts to produce content for a market that no longer exists.” What these comments show, and what this week will prove, is that there is a clear-eyed view of the issues we all face. There is a near-total alignment on some fairly simple solutions. All that remains, then, is the political – and, to be clear, industrial – will to make it happen.

Keep going!