Don't worry, it will be fine. Photo: getty

The edge of the cliff: inside the major NZ media companies in 2018

Today we launch a week-long series taking the temperature of the NZ media at the end of another year of upheaval. Duncan Greive speaks to senior figures across NZ’s biggest media companies to find out what they think about their plight, their rivals and the industry as a whole

When you run a media business, you eventually give up your mind. The process is gradual – a slow and steady stripping away of interests and friendships which you barely notice at first. But after a few years it’s all gone, replaced by an incessant hum of media industry data points which drowns out the space where your personality used to be.

That’s essentially what brought me to this foolhardy idea: to write about all of the biggest media companies in New Zealand over the course of a week. I want to try and tamp down the noise long enough for me to go on holiday, and in my experience the only way to do that is to write about what’s occupying my mind.

To accomplish this I spoke to senior executives at almost all the major New Zealand media organisations and some of the pretenders, asking questions about their own entity and their competitors. I granted all anonymity so as to encourage candour, and allow them to speak as freely as they felt able. I also decided to couch all comment as ‘they/them’ so as to provide an extra layer of impenetrability. All bar one accepted the invitation, and I’m indebted to those who spoke to me for the spirit with which they approached the project.

I did all this not just because I have an unhealthy obsession, but because I believe we’re at a singular, historically unprecedented moment in our media history. That might read trite, and has arguably been true for at least 15 years – but I think there are good reasons to believe that a major round of consolidations or even closures is imminent, one which will see the pent up forces and can-kicking of the Commerce Commission’s denials shake into some sort of new order. Even as I reported these stories, MediaWorks merged with outdoor advertising giant QMS, while Stuff received a first visit from their new Australian owners.

Which means there might never have been a more interesting time to talk about the state of this industry, one which is so visible, so powerful (though that power is manifestly in decline) – yet also so precarious. It’s become a cliche to point to Facebook, Google and TradeMe as the place the revenue which once sustained the media has gone. It’s also undeniably true.

That loss isn’t purely revenue-based – it’s also our time. “Ad-driven media exist to generate attention and then sell that attention,” said one exec. “Selling that attention is just fine. The TV problem is generating attention.” Which is to say that the value they get per viewer is holding up strongly – but they can feel viewers slipping away in clumps.

Another passed me a printout of two graphs labeled ‘Peak PUTS Trend’. Translated that’s the maximum number of people watching television at any given time. It showed a pronounced decline from 2016-2018, with a volatility that suggests linear television may have lost anywhere up to 20% of its audience in that span. Lost to Netflix, to Facebook, to YouTube, to podcasts – to the infinitely splintered world of digital media.

TV – still the glamour, the volume, the big money of this industry – is hardly alone in wrestling with vanishing audiences. Newspapers continue to suffer major circulation declines, and even radio is starting to show cracks. Most frighteningly even the big digital platforms are flat or declining as the effect of Facebook’s algorithm changes bites. So even hope for the future is dwindling. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing an unprecedented level of cooperation between brands and across mediums.

Decline isn’t the whole story, though. While many have suffered major revenue hits, shuttered once-proud units and become “experts at making people redundant”, as one exec almost-admiringly said of another business, they’re also extraordinarily innovative and fighting like hell. The idea that media or journalism is broken and doomed is one which is often taken as read by journalists and commentators (when they’re not issuing press releases pretending things have never been better), but is belied by the innovation, spirit and boldness of many of these institutions.

Similarly the products have in many ways never been better. TVNZ has poured incredible resource into its OnDemand platform, infuriating its competitors. RNZ’s content sharing strategy has helped the whole industry. NZME has launched smartly conceived new verticals while Stuff is now an energy company and a telco. MediaWorks has a laser focus providing major ratings wins while Sky has a looming suite of products which might finally crack the internet. There are fascinating moves being made at Spark, Bauer and Māori Television too.

Importantly, despite attention being fragmented and revenue decimated, the big New Zealand media companies still own and shape the national conversation, and provide much of our sense of self. Like most of the Western world New Zealand experienced a long period of strong and reliable ad revenues facilitating all kinds of public good material, from sports to local drama to journalism. It’s not a stretch by any means to suggest that if the people currently running our big media businesses fail at their missions then, absent major state intervention, the whole country will be incalculably worse off.

Yet failure is a very real possibility – perhaps even the most likely outcome for some. The stakes are truly existential. Which is why it has been so fascinating and fun to write.

The first in the series, on TVNZ, is available now. Tomorrow: Stuff.

Running order

Monday December 10: TVNZ

Tuesday December 11: Stuff

Wednesday December 12: Sky

Thursday December 13: MediaWorks

Friday December 14: NZME

Saturday December 15: RNZ

Sunday December 16: Spark, Bauer, Māori Television


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