RNZ in 2018: will well-meaning government interference end its dream run?

It has been the best-performing media brand of the past five years. Yet Labour’s bold plans to grow it have caused RNZ nothing but trouble so far, and major clouds loom on the horizon, writes Duncan Greive.

While reporting this series I spoke to over a dozen executives, senior editors and reporters across the New Zealand media. Their opinions were often at odds, and only occasionally a clear majority appeared on an issue. Unanimity was rarer still – it came only once across hours and hours of conversation.

The one topic which united all the fractious and conniving denizens of our media was this: that RNZ’s content sharing strategy is an inspired move, one which provided a clear and unambiguous benefit to both the taxpayers who fund it and the broader media as it struggles to chart a way through this period of immense disruption.

“Content sharing is one of the most successful things they’ve done,” said one exec. RNZ now has agreements to pass on its content to over 40 different media outlets, ranging from the country’s biggest, like Stuff, to some of its most diminutive. “It’s keeping some places open, frankly.”

In many ways content sharing was a lightbulb moment for the whole industry: that as much as we love scheming to beat the hell out of each other to a scoop or angle, we also could stand to work more closely. Stuff’s slew of revenue splitting deals can likely be traced back to RNZ’s innovation, and the idea has helped galvanise a new conception of RNZ amongst its senior team: as a place which does great work for all New Zealanders, but isn’t overly concerned about where its work is found.

Content sharing has given way to a much more open posture towards other media. It now has a joint fund administered collaboratively with NZ on Air which aims to work with the independent production community to create new original work for RNZ. The hope is that it will ultimately provide proof of concept for a significantly expanded RNZ offering – some variation on the expansive vision sketched by Clare Curran before her multiple slip-ups and ignominious exit left the whole broadcasting portfolio in limbo.

That has created a tantalising yet excruciating pause. The whole industry is watching to see what new minister Kris Faafoi and our particular working group ends up recommending. It’s deeply frustrating for RNZ, which has a vision to perform something like the role the BBC has assumed in the UK.

RNZ is well-positioned to do that, potentially on a larger scale still. Unfortunately the rest of the media has big plans for any new money. TVNZ would cite its work with kids platform HEIHEI and youth social video producer Re: as proof that it can deliver commercial free public good work to audiences RNZ struggles to meet. Stuff would say no company in New Zealand has as good a track record in delivering regional news to the country.

Labour and NZ on Air are in a major bind, and the way they swing on this crucial issue will have a profound and lasting effect on the shape of our media for years to come.

A few years ago it was common to hear a complaint from RNZ’s fans and sometimes the opposition about the years of ‘frozen funding’ it had under John Key’s National government. The rest of the media privately rolled their eyes – cry a river at a fixed budget and no commercial mouths to feed. Especially as round after round of redundancies hammered mainstream media and they were asked to do more and more with less and less.

To its credit, while RNZ’s budget was unfrozen in 2017, it has done astonishingly well at doing more with essentially the same. Paul Thompson and a refreshed senior leadership team have taken a moribund organisation and brought it racing into the 21st century. It has gone from being a radio brand with a cursory online offering to one of our most sophisticated digital operators in a few short years, while its radio line-up is is somewhere between solid and excellent throughout the week.

In particular the iconic likes of Morning Report (which lost an absolute lion in Guyon Espiner yesterday) and Checkpoint have become defining news products. While they feel overly-centred on politics at the expense of all else, the job they do there is extraordinarily important in shaping the news agenda.

Its site is clean and accessible, while its app sorts and delivers its radio audio in something close to real time. Pacific and Concert are far smaller but fulfil critically important roles. Under Tim Watkin its podcasts have grown in scope and stature, with several becoming breakout hits, and the likes of Bang! and Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower are some of the best efforts to help address one of RNZ’s most long-standing problems: its audience’s age and lack of diversity.

This is the signature challenge of much of our mainstream media, to be fair, but for RNZ its resolution has a moral dimension too. It is funded to be our only commercial free media outlet – if it only appeals to a specific set of New Zealanders then no matter how strong its output or how many awards it wins, it has by definition failed.

To its credit, it is very aware of the issue. The podcasts are one part of the solution, though the medium remains avidly but relatively narrowly consumed. The content sharing strategy is a larger one, which both puts RNZ work where people are, rather than demanding people come to RNZ, while also sustaining the troubled media ecosystem.

It hasn’t been an unambiguously great year, though. The Carol Hirschfeld saga blighted its beginning, and while it seemed no one involved was blameless, it fed into the historic perception that there was an excessively sympathetic relationship between Labour and RNZ (while it would strongly contest this, in radio circles it is taken as truism that RNZ and its audience broadly leans left).

Mid-year it quietly folded its once-highly touted youth site The Wireless into the main RNZ platform. There is a perception amongst other media that when it doubt it leans into worthy but dull. It also lost John Campbell, perhaps the most high profile recruit in RNZ history, to TVNZ in a shift which felt like a reflection on the still-faltering steps it has made into video with Checkpoint.

The timing of that move was instructive. There appears to have been a clear disconnect between the government and RNZ about its future – whether the best way to reach more New Zealanders is through a television channel or a hugely expanded digital service.

A little over a year ago, Labour’s intentions were clear: it announced a $38m funding boost, with the centrepiece being a new commercial-free network under the working name RNZ+.

RNZ was allegedly indifferent about the idea. About whether firing up a new TV channel – in the face of declining linear audiences – was the most efficient way of achieving audience goals. What was not in dispute, according to sources familiar with the discussions, was that the money was RNZ’s to allocate.

That all changed with an extraordinary speech made by the minister at NZ on Air’s annual Christmas function at the end of 2017. Curran, feeding off the energy in the room, took the stage and made a long, rousing address in which she told the several-hundred strong crowd that Labour would be giving them money, essentially. Policy on the hoof, and certainly in contradiction to what RNZ might have expected in terms of its control of the $38m.

The crowd was mostly made up of the local production community, which was understandably elated at this news. NZ on Air and Ministry of Culture and Heritage staff though, were shocked at this new policy twist. They clustered in a corner of the room to figure out how to respond.

Ultimately it played out as a significantly diminished budget announcement of $15m, much of which is somewhat awkwardly administered by both RNZ and NZ on Air, while another working group assesses the future of media funding in New Zealand.

The lack of clarity has significantly impacted RNZ’s ability to plan, and may have contributed to Campbell’s decision to leave – his primary love is television, and there is no certainty that RNZ will ever make it in any concerted way.

A bigger question is beginning to arise amongst other media. As money becomes more scarce, NZ on Air and the state loom ever-larger in the imagination of the for-profit media. Where advertising has historically been by far the most significant form of revenue, it is now looking down the side of the couch for any cash which might be lurking.

The big question for the whole sector is whether the future of public good journalism has RNZ at its heart, or there is further decentralising coming. Or, as one rival executive put it, “[RNZ] might not be the only platform funded to provide content to audiences on a commercial free basis”.

This goes to the very core of our near-unique model of media funding, back to the foundation of NZ on Air as an entity. The decision was made that rather than simply funding TVNZ to create public good drama and documentaries and so on, that a contestable fund would exist for outside producers to create content for broadcasters. In the past the question of funding journalism didn’t exist – it was well-provided for by advertising revenue. Now that revenue pool is shrinking fast, and media is converging on digital, new questions are being posed.

The launch of HEIHEI earlier this year exemplifies them, and may yet be seen as a pivotal moment in our media history. It’s a platform for games and video content targeted at children, containing both original and archive material, and is aimed at ensuring our kids don’t grow up only seeing overseas content through international SVODs like Netflix, which many parents heavily now rely on.

The intriguing part is that HEIHEI is run by TVNZ, but could just as easily have been an RNZ initiative. Regional reporting is another battleground. Stuff is shuttering or powering down a huge number of regional titles, yet retains easily the largest digital audience outside of Auckland.

Given that both RNZ and NZ on Air have identified regions as areas which need specific content strategies and funding, Stuff would have a strong case to be the creator of public good journalistic content for that audience – whether it be delivered via video, audio or text (another open question is whether NZ on Air’s remit will expand to more explicitly cover the latter). Indeed, sources say senior executives from RNZ, NZ on Air and Stuff met at Wellington café Nikau in late November to try and work through this very issue.

Historically NZ on Air has always emphasised the private media and production community. Yet both RNZ and instinctively Labour and NZ First, would likely prefer a centralised model, with RNZ at its heart. This is the power struggle between erstwhile partners NZ on Air and RNZ for the future of media funding in New Zealand.

Should RNZ be scaled up and able to directly commission public good content for its platform on its own and from the private production community, which is then distributed in an open source style throughout the media? Or should NZ on Air identify specific goals and let all platforms and production companies bid to meet them, with RNZ no more privileged in that race than anyone else? How this debate plays out is critically important, and will have a huge impact on how the media in this country evolves – and if certain models are even viable.

RNZ ends 2018 in as intriguing a position as any of the commercial media. Its funding might be more stable, and its mission marginally less complex, but its future is as in play as any of us. Its rivals are hugely admiring of it in many ways, and of the way it has engaged with the broader sector. While one described it as “guilty of being boring at times”, another presented this as arguably necessary: “if it went young and cool, would the private sector go crazy at them for cutting their lunch?”

It probably would. And yet the sector-wide problem of how to reach young and diverse audiences remains, and is one RNZ cannot and will not shrug at. Sources say it’s planning on a major marketing push in 2019, along with a relaunch of some digital products. As with everyone else, it has to live in the present and plan for the future at the same time, regardless of whatever chaos government, technology and audience behaviour might throw at it.

The Spinoff’s NZ media in 2018 series: the 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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