RNZ Chair Jim Mather and Clare Curran (image: RNZ)

Behold, a new era in public media – but how much has really changed?

Broadcasting minister Clare Curran yesterday announced how $15m of new funding for the media will be distributed. How will it affect what you hear, see and read?

The minister called it the “beginning of a new era”. Sounds radical. What was announced?

Yesterday we learned the detail of a $15m boost to media funding announced in the budget in May.

Wait, $15m? Wasn’t there a lot more than that coming, and a new TV channel and so on?

Easy mistake to make. Labour had promised $38m in new funding for media, a large chunk of it for RNZ+, an extension to the current RNZ offering, the heart of which would be a new commercial free and free-to-air TV channel.

And Labour won the election. So where’s the funding?

Reality bit. Pressure on money, and perhaps controversy involving the minister herself, meant that the finance minister announced a much lower number than expected. The minister insisted that it was only year one, and the advisory board she had appointed to consider how the money would be spent needed time to do their work, and so on. So what the minister of broadcasting, communications, and digital media laid out yesterday was precisely how that much smaller figure would be spent.

Which is?

Some $4.5m goes to RNZ to “extend its services to reach more people in different ways. It takes RNZ several steps closer toward the fully digital multi-platform public media organisation – RNZ+.” At the press conference Curran stressed that this was a working name, though she appears very attached to it. Four million goes to “support the production of more diverse local content”, essentially topping up NZ on Air’s contestable fund.

Those are effectively operating budget increases. The big new ticket is a $6m “Innovation Fund” to create work which “will air on RNZ platforms and be commissioned from the independent production sector using NZ On Air’s existing funding processes.”

Sounds like a lot of cooks in that kitchen.

The announcement saw the chairs of the advisory group, NZ on Air and RNZ speak, along with the minister and the executives of RNZ and NZ on Air. If you’re keeping count that’s six separate humans.

We wrote about the tug of love between RNZ and NZ on Air over the new money earlier this year. What this new plan indicates is that the government’s solution is to to give them each a bit of their own, and demand they share the rest. NZ on Air head Jane Wrightson acknowledged this would lead to “robust” conversations – there is a sense that having two parties jointly administer the fund might prove one too many.

Any other money floating around?

There’s also $500,000 for research into how Crown-funded media can use its resources more efficiently, which PWC will likely appreciate.

A bit more money for RNZ, a bit more for NZ on Air, and a bit to share with the private sector – it doesn’t scream new era.

No. But the idea that outside production companies will begin producing content for RNZ is somewhat radical. It’s not without precedent – Great Southern made Stories of Ruapekapeka for RNZ last year, with NZ on Air support, and Stuff collaborated with them for the Gone Fishin’ podcast.

Those now have the air of experiments – $6m will buy a whole lot more. The production sector will appreciate the work, as there’s now an extra $10m combined in the pool, much of which will likely go towards video – specifically the kind of public interest video in news and current affairs and under-served audiences which has been harder and harder to get commissioned at the mainstream networks lately.

More public-spirited video – will there be enough for that new TV channel?

That’s probably the most tense question in public media right now. Curran still definitely wants it, and considers it part of the “long-term” vision. RNZ’s Thompson seems not to – he dodged the question, but pointedly noted that he thought more people would be watching this new content on “mobiles and tablets” than on the “big black box in the corner”.

That debate has effectively been kicked down the road with this announcement – one of the upsides of the constrained budget – but it’s worth noting that this current era has been defined by slowly declining global audiences for linear television and exploding audiences for online video. This trend isn’t really debated by serious people – even Sky TV, with by far the biggest selection of linear in the country, is talking openly about the end of it. With that in mind, Curran’s dogged pursuit of it in the long term has the air of obsession.

(A prediction: this content will end up being housed in a Netflix-style library, which is effectively what channels are evolving into. And that will be called RNZ+. And everyone will claim victory.)

Anything in this for rest of the media?

Theoretically they’ll be able to apply for either fund, to either collaborate with RNZ, Stuff-style, or do their own things with the $4m pot at NZ on Air. And there’s that research money, which is meant in part to find out how media can work collaboratively (because media has no clue how to do that and content sharing agreements are definitely not already rife).

Ultimately the private media is likely to feel somewhat marginalised by this announcement – there’s over $10m in new money for RNZ, effectively a 30% increase in funding from 2017 levels, the vast majority for content. And while it will largely be shareable, its also more ad-free competition for attention. Which the ad-supported media doesn’t tend to love. As for TVNZ and Māori TV – while they’re as eligible for some of this funding as anyone else, the fact they’re not central to it the way RNZ is will absolutely be noted by those organisations.

Anything else to see here?

Well, the press conference – live-streamed on Facebook by NZ on Air, helpfully – was a funny scene all its own. It was Curran’s show, but multiple people were called to the lectern at various times including, memorably, Michael Stiassny. The chair of Curran’s advisory board got up to answer a single question and seemed to rather like the lectern, staying for a couple more questions while Curran hovered nervously alongside.

The fact a number of the questions could quite rightly have been directed at multiple heads of organisations was a kind of proxy for what we’ll see at the commissioning stage. How well that goes will ultimately determine whether this is the start of a larger collaborative arrangement, or simply a diversion before a bigger teardown and rebuild.


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