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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BusinessApril 9, 2024

Four key questions ahead of two massive days for news media in New Zealand

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Over the next 48 hours, hundreds of journalists across both of New Zealand’s major TV news services will learn their fates. Duncan Greive outlines what’s at stake, and looks at an idea about a post-Newshub news service for Three.

What is happening at TVNZ today?

In early March, a press release confirmed a proposal for deep cuts at TVNZ. Centred on news, they represented “a net reduction of up to 68 roles across all business areas”, and the “cancellation of programmes Midday, Tonight, Fair Go and Sunday”, along with the end of the Re: News leadership group.

This resulted in a fiery meeting between new TVNZ CEO Jodi O’Donnell and the TVNZ newsroom, during which she was asked to apologise for the cuts. TVNZ news staff, led by their union, put together a campaign and petition named Save Our Stories which has attracted over 13,000 signatures, with the aim of pressuring TVNZ into a change of tack. They have the opportunity because New Zealand employment law invites impacted parties to give feedback on a proposal of this nature. Given TVNZ has acknowledged that both Fair Go and Sunday are currently profitable, it’s not inconceivable that a lifeline might be thrown.

Yet while organisations can change course based on that, they typically don’t. As former TVNZ exec Cate Calver wrote as part of The Spinoff’s ‘20 CEOs, two questions’ series, “local content is by a huge factor more expensive than international, so is the obvious place to go for short-term savings.” This means that even if those shows are high ratings and profitable, they could be replaced in their time slots by imported content at a fraction of the price, and make more money, even if they get lower audiences than those marquee shows. 

The argument with Re: News might be that they can retain much of the brand equity without leadership, and have it directed by the wider 1News leadership, while still remaining eligible for NZ on Air support and leaving the door open to brand partnerships. It’s part of the general hollowing out of news organisations over the past decade, in which the logo is retained, while what it promised is quietly hollowed away.

When will the Newshub team find out their fate? 

TVNZ’s latest development is much more typical of the way thousands of journalistic jobs have been lost over the past 20 years. A slow chiselling which leaves the brand out front but inexorably reduces its ability to perform the functions it claims. Newshub’s situation is different. Six weeks ago, its staff were called to an emergency all staff meeting and told that its owner, Warner Bros Discovery (WBD), had decided to just shutter their whole operation. No 6pm news, no Paddy Gower Has Issues, no website, no late bulletin – just nothing. 

At 11am on Wednesday staff will gather to hear WBD APAC chief James Gibbons, who has flown in to inform Newshub staff of the company’s final decision about their fate. Despite a reported proposal led by senior journalist Michael Morrah, Newshub staff spoken to by The Spinoff did not hold out much hope for a reprieve. 

Is that the end of news on Three?

Not necessarily. Just as Sky contracted Newshub to make a bulletin for Prime (now Sky Open), it’s conceivable that WBD might contract a third party to deliver a news bulletin for Three. A well-placed media industry source told The Spinoff that NZME is well-advanced on a proposal to deliver an hour of news and current affairs to Three, should the Newshub shut down go ahead as mooted. This morning, the NZ Herald’s Shayne Currie suggested Stuff might also be working on a proposal.

NZME is particularly well-placed to create a bare bones TV news product, as it employs hundreds of journalists across its digital and print news operations, and operates a large number of studios around the country. While an NZME bulletin might not have the same production values as Newshub, it could plausibly create a product to fill out an hour for a far lower cost base than WBD. It could hire one or two senior presenters to deliver a half hour of news, and even create a current affairs interview show much like the one WBD was working on, built around Ryan Bridge, before the end of Newshub was announced.

It could all be shot in NZME’s downtown Auckland studios, plugged into the systems that currently carry Newstalk ZB. While a bitter pill for Newshub’s journalists, for WBD it would prevent the likely ratings collapse of ending news entirely for the channel. When reached for comment, an NZME spokesperson would only say “we’re not currently part of the process on this.” 

Given that WBD cannot formally engage with any party until the Newshub proposal is actioned, that makes sense. For its part, a WBD spokesperson delivered the following statement to The Spinoff. “We are committed to listening to all internal and external feedback and ideas, and we will continue to do so as we work through our consultation process.” That ends tomorrow – and should Newshub’s fate be confirmed, WBD can then engage with any other ideas about delivering a news product for a fraction of the cost. This would not save many jobs, and might not even preserve much plurality if it’s largely delivered by existing NZME journalists. It might also be a lot better than no news for WBD, and for New Zealand.

Is it just about news at TVNZ and WBD?

No. While news is the most public part of all this, there are other jobs in line for cuts at both organisations – and the scope is particularly broad at WBD. “Marketing, sales, integration, commissioning, legal – the impact is huge”, as a source told me at the time. The company has confirmed it will no longer make shows that aren’t wholly funded in the local market – meaning that its slate of popular reality content will end this year. So shows like The Block (which last aired in 2022) and Married at First Sight NZ (which has a forthcoming season, off the back of the current smash hit Australian version) and the imminent My Mum, Your Dad will not be commissioned by the channel in future.

TVNZ has reduced its local commissioning budget, and will be more reliant on NZ on Air than ever before. For its part, the public media funder is facing the same 6.5% budget reduction as other state agencies, and has both a news sector and production sector hungrily eyeing up that reduced pūtea for assistance. There are multiple organisations lobbying government to intervene in a regulatory and legislative environment largely designed in the late ‘80s. Yet media minister Melissa Lee has been against the digital news bargaining bill, and made no public statement suggesting major alternative reforms are imminent. The economic doldrums driving the advertising slump show also no signs of lifting. On that basis, it’s reasonable to expect the cuts to go through as proposed – and to keep an eye on the horizon for more.

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