One Question Quiz

MediaApril 9, 2024

RNZ, Whakaata Māori, PMN, NZ on Air and NZ Film Commission leaders weigh in on media crisis


Above the Fold: as two of our biggest media organisations face radical downsizing, Duncan Greive asks our media leaders what’s going on, and what can be done about it. First up: the leaders of our publicly-funded media organisations, and the funders themselves.

This is part two of Above the Fold: 20 Media CEOs, Two Big Questions, a five-part series running all this week and featuring a selection of responses to two heady questions confronting the New Zealand media sector. Read the series introduction here.

While the current crisis impacting New Zealand’s media is broad and complex, there are two core drivers that are making the biggest impact on TVNZ and Warner Bros. Discovery, the two companies that will this week announce the full scale of the job losses they proposed in late February.

The first is advertising, in that a double dip recession has seen marketing budgets slashed to the core. The second is audience, the scale of which is directly correlated to advertising revenues across much of our commercial media. Legacy audiences are more than a decade into deep structural decline, and digital audiences splinter into infinite shards.

It means commercial operators are cut to the bone – and we’ll hear from them later in the week – but it also means that there is increasing scrutiny of publicly-funded media organisations, and pressure on those funders. This is partly because, as the ad-funded part of the media shrinks, other parts, some of which have had large funding increases recently, are growing as a proportion of the industry. But it’s also because as budgets become tightly squeezed, some previously uncontroversial funded content starts to get an extra layer of scrutiny.

Today we run edited responses from the leaders of RNZ, Whakaata Māori, Pacific Media Network, all of which are majority state-funded, along with the New Zealand Film Commission and NZ on Air, the two largest scale state funders of content in New Zealand.

Cam Harland, CE at NZ on Air, “an independent government funding agency delivering quality and diverse New Zealand public media”.

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

We are deeply concerned about the current state of the media industry. Our concerns are on three levels (sorry we couldn’t narrow it to one).  

Firstly, we are concerned about the precarious financial situation that our local broadcasters find themselves in and what this means for the viability of commissioning and creating local series, as well as the production of essential journalism. 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. If our broadcasters lose the ability to adequately support our local stories, this will have a lasting adverse impact on the ability of New Zealanders to access their own stories and local news.  

Secondly, as a result of the above, we’re worried for the health of the local independent production sector. The sector has incredible talent and business nous and has grown, in particular due to the Screen Production Rebate (SPR) both directly and indirectly increasing opportunities over recent years. Should local broadcasters further reduce their commissioning of local content, our local production ecosystem risks weakening to the point where it cannot adequately sustain key growth areas. 

Cam Harland (Photo: NZ On Air)

This includes the provision of cast and crew for large international productions filming in our country, as well as the development of our own ambitious domestic intellectual property projects. These endeavours not only generate revenue but also provide employment opportunities. This ecosystem is fragile and any reduction in local commissioning not only immediately impacts on content and audience outcomes but also on longer term workforce, content and economic growth. 

Thirdly, we are very concerned for what it means for our culture and democracy if the above two concerns become reality. New Zealand audiences will be the poorer for not having access to stories that reflect their identity and culture. These stories celebrate what it is to be a New Zealander, our unique Māori culture and language, and the myriad cultures and communities that make Aotearoa the place it is. 

Our stories cannot be told authentically by overseas production houses and won’t be freely available on local platforms. This hits hard at a cultural level, and also at the heart of democracy, as media represents one of the core institutions of a functioning cohesive society.

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

There are a number of approaches that could be taken and in truth several approaches combined may be required. Many of these ideas have been suggested in recent months, and all seem worthy of consideration. The starting point is to focus on the content – be cost effective, seek out other funding sources and find new ways to create content for audiences. Make great stuff and tell people about it. 

At a funding intervention level, more government funding has been mooted and in many OECD territories funding for public media is prioritised, however any increase in government funding alone won’t fix the underlying issues. Any funding in support of local platforms would need to encourage new ways of doing things and not prop up failing business models built around legacy infrastructure and high costbases. 

There needs to be support for innovation that delivers to local audiences in wholly digital environments. Maybe increased funding would come by way of leveraging other sources of investment either offshore or from organisations engaged in activity in our marketplace. Perhaps there is a new way of assisting critical areas of the sector by way of a form of rebate or subsidy on eligible expenditure that produces local content, generates domestic IP for international export, and supports skilled screen workers?   

An examination of the Broadcasting Act and a broadening of NZ on Air’s legislative mandate and the mechanics of the SPR to better respond to the sector as well as support its domestic IP ambitions could be considered. 

In the news and journalism space, coordination across newsrooms and digital news platforms to share the costs and overheads of making news is worth exploring. At the market structure and regulatory level there are a number of ideas that have merit. Allowing and even encouraging greater collaboration between competitors may help firm up businesses; 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; and requiring local quotas on global streamers has been done in other markets.  

Bringing streamers to the table and requiring them to support screen skills initiatives and, more importantly, to commission local content will help audiences (Netflix already has significant penetration in this market) and the production community. But that won’t necessarily help local platforms.  

Shoring up the advertising model is less simple. There is no question that international competition has been utterly disruptive. These competitors have very low cost models and have fundamentally, and possibly irreversibly, impacted the local operators. Levelling the playing field in some way that sees these operators contribute something meaningful into the system might be explored and fast-tracked.  

There is no one fix – but whatever is done must be done swiftly to protect our local stories and the platforms and businesses that deliver them.

Don Mann, CEO, Pacific Media Network, which “offers open access to Pacific news, entertainment and lifestyle stories” through radio and digital channels.

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

Media organisations that thought they had future-proofed by digital transformation are now discovering their business models are obsolete. It makes sense. Facebook, YouTube, Google and Spotify have all been around for 20 years. Those platforms are old news. Whilst the sector lobbies for legislation that restores balance, the horse has bolted once again and Generative AI is driving it.

So the problem now for the sector, policymakers and the government is how do we design a path forward into a future that’s exponentially being reimagined. It’s like chasing a butterfly in a garden; you think it’s in your grasp, yet it flutters away and transforms into something new.

Don Mann (Photo: PMN)

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

Paul Thompson, CEO of RNZ has repeatedly called for the heads of all media organisations to act as a collective to protect local interests, plus enable greater collaboration and sharing of resources. There is no single body that’s fully charged with this. Industry leaders could make this happen now. 

As a long-term intervention, the establishment of a crown-owned “media research institute” that is charged with helping the media sector grow, innovate and compete. AgResearch, GNS, ESR and Callaghan Innovation all exist to drive long-term economic growth. The existence of a national media institute could resolve national infrastructure requirements (e.g. investment in data centres) and at the same time develop intellectual property that helps our national media compete globally (e.g. sovereign AI technology that serves our super-diverse population).

Paul Thompson, CE of RNZ, whichprovides audiences with trusted and independent news and current affairs, a range of diverse programmes, podcasts and series both on-air and online in accordance with the Radio New Zealand Charter”.

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

I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting and worrying about the immense challenges facing the media sector. I feel deeply for those colleagues across the industry directly affected by restructuring. It means thinking very hard about the role we play in connecting and informing New Zealanders and supporting the wider industry.  

The first thing we can and must continue to do is share our content and look to other ways we may be able to collaborate like through training and research. We are a cornerstone provider, highly integrated with the wider sector through more than 60 content sharing arrangements. We also have 16 reporters in regional commercial newsrooms through our Local Democracy Reporter scheme.  

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson. Photo: Supplied

But RNZ doesn’t help by standing still. On the eve of our 100th birthday next year we are acutely aware of the need to move with the times and the audiences. So, how do we continue to deliver public media that matters? How do we ensure our work is relevant, influential and helpful? How do we help support the health of our sector which is key to a functioning democracy? 

RNZ is 10 months into a three-year business plan to transform the organisation. The first issue is dealing with RNZ’s technology debt in digital services, cyber-security and transmission technology – we freely admit funding restrictions mean we haven’t historically kept pace with change. 

While a significant part of our current funding will be needed to remedy this, RNZ is also focusing on what we deliver to our audiences. The plan will allow us to provide new content for more diverse audiences, different methods of delivery, advances in the growing area of podcasts and a greater ability to share content with the broader media sector. There is a tremendous amount of work going on that is long overdue. We need to get on with the job to create a public media organisation fit for the next 100 years.  

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

There is no silver bullet solution for the media sector.  It’s going to take a series of initiatives over time. And it’s important to define what we are trying to achieve. It will come as no surprise that I am an advocate for public media.  Around the world, good democracies have strong public media entities.  The case for well-funded public media was strong in the past, and arguably stronger now. A time of contraction in the commercial sector is not helped by any serious reduction in public media service. 

Of course, RNZ also is an advocate for plurality.  We need breadth and depth with our media entities and ownership.  And ultimately how to incentivise ownership and growth of our media is a debate about government policy settings and levers. It’s a debate worth having. If you look offshore there are a range of measures which other jurisdictions adopt, and which don’t require direct government funding.  These encourage local investment and are often tagged to domestic ownership. Make it local and keep it local.  

For example, permitting a charity status on certain publications and outlets. Allowing subscriptions to be tax deductible. Or tax rebates for local investment like what has occurred with large screen productions. Increasingly there are calls for a levy on digital advertising which is another area worthy of investigation. Ultimately, we need to recognise as a country that the commercial imperative to tell our stories is an increasingly difficult one. If we want to continue to see our communities reflected in our media, to see and hear what makes us uniquely New Zealand, we need to look at ways to help the industry thrive.  

Annie Murray, CE of the New Zealand Film Commission, “a government agency that invests in New Zealand feature films and short films” as well as administering the Screen Production Rebate, the largest government media investment.

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

The biggest issue we are facing in NZ film is the challenge of raising finance to tell big, bold New Zealand stories. NZFC invests up to $2m in each of the NZ films we fund, which means filmmakers usually need to find finance from other sources to make up a production budget, unless they are producing a low budget film. 

We’re seeing volatility in the finance market, whereby partners might commit early in the process, then by the time we get to contracting, their circumstances have changed and they can no longer commit. This causes stress to producers, who then must urgently find another investor, often at the last minute. Sometimes this means delaying a shoot or making budget changes, which is very stressful and creates uncertainty for all involved – cast, crew, vendors and other investors. Inflation is also having an effect, which impacts on production budgets and therefore the value that audiences see on screen.

Annie Murray (Photo: NZFC)

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

NZFC is reconsidering how we invest in films. We know we won’t have any more funding to invest, but we are looking at how we allocate what we do have. Should we fund fewer films but increase the amount we invest? Should we fund a few lower budget films each year to give emerging filmmakers an opportunity? How do we partner more effectively to make our funding go further? We will be looking at how we can draw on the strengths of industry experts here and around the world to help support and uplift New Zealand films. 

Here in NZ we have internationally celebrated industry veterans who want to help to grow the next generation of filmmakers, and their generosity to young creatives speaks volumes about their love for New Zealand film and for our country. Their international connections are priceless, and the opportunities they create for younger filmmakers are unrivalled anywhere in the world. So while we may have limited budgets, we have exceptional filmmaking talent here in New Zealand and our job is to connect and empower film makers to tell great New Zealand stories.

Shane Taurima, Kaihautū, Whakaata Māori, which ​​“promotes, revitalises and normalises the Māori language by taking a digital-first, audience-led approach in the delivery of educational, entertaining and engaging programming”.

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

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, consisting of time-limited funding provided by the previous government. Under-investment over a sustained period of time has meant that significant investment is required now to ensure that we are able to deliver engaging te reo Māori content to our audiences whenever, wherever and however they want to consume it. The Māori Media Sector Shift review recommendations also need to be actioned.

Shane Taurima (Image: Supplied)

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

An enabling legislative framework that recognises shifts in technology and audience preferences is critical.  Local Aotearoa content must be given prominence. A focus on audience outcomes, collaboration, and resource-sharing as appropriate are also key.

Keep going!