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MediaFebruary 9, 2023

The media merger is dead. How did it hit inside RNZ and TVNZ, and what comes next?


The embattled project might be buried, but the problems that animated its advocates are not. Toby Manhire talks to those at the no-longer-merging broadcasters to get a read on the road ahead. 

Born out of the ashes of Clare Curran’s RNZ+ reforms, the RNZ-TVNZ merger journey has across five years spanned a soup of advisory groups, consultant reports and tongue-twister initialisms. Along the way, its ministerial stewards, Kris Faafoi and Willie Jackson, and others besides, have stumbled at the most rudimentary of obstacles: articulating the problem the reform was designed to solve. 

Even as legislation to unite the two state-owned broadcasters progressed through first reading and select committee at the end of 2022, media industry figures wondered whether the government might yet throw it off a bridge. Those suspicions began to calcify when prime minister Jacinda Ardern ranked the project “not number one on the government agenda” in the course of the same pre-Christmas interview that announced a “reprioritisation” to bin various non-essential government policies. (Ardern would soon crack the seal on the great Labour divestment of 2023 by divesting herself.) 

A reform initiated with the best of intentions had become an albatross around the government neck. The tension between TVNZ and the minister could be cut with a knife. Private sector operators weren’t happy. And the National Party dined out, catapulting the media merger to the top of the list when asked what would be sacrificed to pay for promised tax cuts. 

Nobody gasped yesterday, therefore, when the prime minister announced yesterday afternoon, just 21 days before the merged entity, Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media, was meant to spring into life, that the merger had met its purger. The arranged marriage was off. RNZ would get a funding boost. So would New Zealand on Air. TVNZ? As you were. 

Despite the lack of detail, the overwhelming sentiment among more than 10 sources spoken to by The Spinoff across the broadcasters and funding bodies, all on condition of anonymity, was one of relief. Relief at an end to, as many put it, months of “limbo”. “Not just limbo, but sliding doors,” said one.

It came with frustration, too, and disappointment, as well a broad agreement about what wasn’t over: the dazzling challenges the public-owned media companies face; many of the same challenges which prompted the exercise in the first place.

Kris Faafoi announces the merger proposal in Christchurch (Image: Screengrab)

RNZ at the altar

If the merger was a nuptial exercise, RNZ had been “glamming up to marry a rich spouse –  and then we got left at the altar”, said one staffer. “Management was incredibly focused on it. They’d toured the world and reorganised structures.” 

How will the news have landed? It had proved “disruptive to go all the way through that and see it get canned”, said the long-serving employee. “There will be a minority of people, mainly in Wellington, who are celebrating,” they said of a group who pine for the analogue-is-king days. But, “mostly a sense of great disappointment. There had been a real excitement, especially among younger staff and especially in Auckland, about joining up.” For some of those people, the response would be: “Fuck, we thought we were going to be joining TVNZ. Now [the message is] ‘you’re just a radio station.’”

In recent weeks, merger meetings had been ongoing, with RNZ and TVNZ representatives, alongside pricey Deloitte consultants, gathering for online Teams meetings. The truth, said one with knowledge of the process, was that the new year had seen the process followed to the letter, but there was a discernible sense the accelerator was not being put to the floor. Those involved had “got the grieving out of the way” at the end of last year. They were “philosophical” about the news, with disappointment mitigated by yesterday’s announcement that funding would be increased. 

In an internal email to staff yesterday, CEO Paul Thompson acknowledged a “frustrating” few weeks and welcomed “clarity after recent uncertainty”. He said the promised injection of funding would offer a chance to “to strengthen a standalone RNZ”, adding: “Many of you shared your thoughts about what you wanted ANZPM to be and achieve. Others have been deeply involved on a daily basis. It will all help inform what we do in the future.”

Thompson sought to assure staff that the work put in was not wasted. “We injected our energy and expertise into the policy and good things will come from it – including the funding announced today and the growing consensus of RNZ’s importance… New Zealand needs a strong public media sector and, as today’s announcement underlines, RNZ is the cornerstone of it.”

If clarity on the decision was overdue, “clarity on funding” is the priority now, said an RNZ employee. That was as much about now as the future. The organisation confronted a “heavy deficit”, one which had mounted as it focused its attentions on a merger. Insiders painted a picture of an organisation struggling under the weight of underinvestment, including a nine-year freeze under National. (The opposition has said it, too, will boost funding, but is yet to put a number on it.)

“We have big legacy issues, like [the condition of] our masts, which are crucial for lifeline stuff during disasters, to address,” said one. Another pointed to the studio technology, which has coughed and spluttered through several live broadcasts over recent weeks. Then there’s the increasingly antiquated state of the offices more generally. It’s all a long way from the promise of the spruced up, nimble, future-equipped environment imagined by ANZPM proselytisers. Now, said the RNZ-er, “without a major injection of cash, we would really struggle.”

Hipkins was light on detail yesterday, but seemed to suggest RNZ could expect in the region of $5-12 million more a year to fill a “sustainability gap”, and that it would be apportioned ahead of the budget process. Twelve million, said one RNZ staffer, “would be great, but it’s effectively just enough to meet our current ongoing costs”.

Sources at both broadcasters pointed to the recruitment, announced to staff in recent days, of Veronica Schmidt, one of the most widely respected editorial staffers at RNZ, to TVNZ, where she will take up the role of general manager, digital news and content. It hardly seemed like the sort of migration you’d expect if the two outfits were about to coalesce. But it wasn’t just that. It underlined, too, the challenge RNZ, especially, faces in personnel. “How can you bring across, and how can you retain talent?” as one put it.

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson and board chairman Dr Jim Mather (Photo: Dom Thomas/RNZ)

TVNZ and pre-Covid angst

New Zealand’s big public-owned television company is just five minutes stroll down Hobson Street from the Auckland offices of RNZ – and a world away. TVNZ is a glassy, mezzanine-layered, high-spec bubble. RNZ? “It’s like walking into the 1970s,” said one RNZ employee. “And that’s the Auckland office. Wellington is more like the 50s.”

It was a culture difference that broadcasting minister Willie Jackson was alighting on, too, when he scolded TVNZ for its obstinacy, saying, “we need them to change their attitude.” That contrast, one that policymakers unfamiliar with the organisations never quite grasped, stemmed not just from the differences between the world of television and radio, but between a fundamentally commercially driven operation and a determinedly public-service-minded one.

The perception of a mood of resistance, or insouciance, or even indifference about the merger among many at TVNZ wasn’t entirely fair, said one staffer. There were a lot of people “working their arses off” to prepare for the change, from Barbara Dreaver, the network’s Pacific correspondent who sat on the establishment board to numerous staffers taking part in committees. There had been, said another staffer, “a lot of frustration” over the marooning of “a year-long project that we put thousands of hours into”. 

It wasn’t just the high-level discussions. There had been a number of semi-formal engagements between the organisations, too – “there was lots of energy there”, said one TVNZ journalist, “a real sense of possibility of what we could do”. 

There is no doubt, however, that the TVNZ workforce as a whole was substantially less engaged and enervated by the whole process. “Simon [Power, TVNZ CEO] has been enthusiastic about pushing it forward,” said one staff member of the process. “But on a day-to-day level most people just weren’t thinking about it on a strategic level.”

While RNZ editorial teams were, by one account, “really invested in it all”, the same wasn’t witnessed at TVNZ. There, “the stakes just aren’t as high”. “It’s been pretty much business as usual,” said one TVNZ employee. Another said: “Some in more commercial roles will be really relieved but others will see it as a real shame. I think a lot of people at TVNZ loved the idea of a merged entity in principle, but it felt like this process, and the speed of it, wasn’t as good as it might have been.”

It was “critical”, said one TVNZ source, that the process the broadcaster had been through – talking at length about reaching audiences less well served by the status quo, especially –  did not get thrown out with the merger bathwater. Hipkins left open last night the possibility of revisiting the “letter of expectation” sent to TVNZ from its government shareholder, as well as a potential return to a charter, which formed part of the reforms. “I wouldn’t dismiss those as potential ways forward,” said the prime minister.

While relatively few at TVNZ had tied their future prospects to the merger, there was acceptance among many that change was necessary. Prognostications of economic downturn and a drop in advertising revenue were a live topic of conversation, prompting what one called a relapse of “pre-Covid angst” and “fear for the future”. 

“We know ANZPM isn’t happening. We don’t know what is happening, and the problems aren’t going away,” said one TVNZ source. It would be a “huge mistake”, they said, were TVNZ to suspend its own soul-searching and strategy-making, if the shock of a commercial imperative saw it resile from “public service outcomes”, from the challenges of reaching younger and more diverse audiences, not least Māori and Pasifika, from forging a place among an explosive, sometimes confounding profusion of digital channels and platforms, from speaking to and maintaining trust with audiences susceptible to online rabbit-holes, and from delivering high quality, costly scripted television that could plausibly hold its own against international output. 

“The trouble is,” they said, “we can’t keep doing the strategy, and at the same time keep serving the existing audience, with the amount of resource we have now.”

The road ahead

Under the now-junked merger, a large chunk, close to 40%, of the NZ on Air contestable fund would have been carved off and provided to the merged entity so that it could pursue its own commissioning. There is no intention now to bulk fund TVNZ for public-interest programming; instead, a spokesperson for the prime minister confirmed to The Spinoff, it will revert to a New Zealand on Air fund, likely to increase in quantum, to which TVNZ will again have to apply. 

That reversal is not without complications. A transitional strategy unveiled by NZ on Air in late 2022, prompted by the dramatic reduction of its funding pie that came with ANZPM project, sought “to redefine [our] role to ensure public funding has the greatest impact for audiences”. That included, for example, an increased emphasis on hard-to-reach audiences and a reduced focus on big-budget comedy and drama. It is unclear, too, whether RNZ will be eligible to apply for NZ on Air funding, given its own budget is increasing.

In a statement responding to the announcement last night, Ruth Harley, chair of the funding body, who had previously remonstrated with the minister over a lack of detail in the ANZPM rollout, said, “our funding strategy is flexible and future-focused”, before adding, with a nod to the new prime minister’s favourite meal: “Serving quality public media content to a range of audiences, including under-served audiences, has been our bread and butter for 33 years, and will continue to be.” 

It is not, however, a piece of cake to return to the NZOA pre-existing model. The way funding cycles work, it will be near impossible to rewire the machine in time for the next round, sources suggest, leaving some in the production sector floundering. And while Te Māngai Pāho was not expected to have its budget impacted by the launch of ANZPM, there was some disappointment yesterday that the announcement included no reference to the role of the Māori language content funder.

As the sector regroups after an announcement that surprised nobody but leaves many summoning energy, those affected are anxious to see the details of new funding, and conscious that what comes next may slip well under the public spotlight.

It pays to remember, one RNZ staffer told The Spinoff, the environment in which so much of the ill-fated, multi-lettered TVNZ-RNZ PME-ANZPM experiment was crafted. Before and especially at the outset of the Covid pandemic, TVNZ’s commercial stability and RNZ’s sustainability looked decidedly rocky. Jacinda Ardern might have exaggerated in suggesting RNZ could “collapse”, but nothing existed by divine right. “In five to 10 years, we might look back and say, well –” said our source, inhaling with a crackling, drowning sort of noise. 

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