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Image: Tina Tiller
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MediaNovember 28, 2022

Can the TVNZ-RNZ merger meet the diverse needs of Pacific audiences?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

What does a Pacific man charged with threatening to kill a radio host have to do with the merger of TVNZ and RNZ? Samson Samasoni explains.

This article is republished with permission from Pacific Media Network.

​In August 2020, a 60-year-old Sāmoan border security worker found himself in court charged with threatening to kill Newstalk ZB radio host Mike Hosking.

He’d just come off a long shift and took umbrage at Hosking saying prime minister Jacinda Ardern had “been caught with her pants down” over her Covid-19 response. When the station refused to give the man Hosking’s personal phone number, he threatened to kill the radio host.

The court later heard the “pants down” idiom was taken literally rather than as a figure of speech because the man’s English was limited.

The judge discharged him without conviction saying that while Hosking’s style of interviewing might be described as robust or interpreted as rude, there was no excuse for making a death threat. The judge added: “Media play an important part in our democracy, provide (the) public with in-depth factual information and act as a watchdog against abuses of power.”

Of course, there’s no excuse for making death threats.  But you can’t help wondering how a language and cultural misunderstanding led to such a confronting situation.

At the risk of drawing a very long bow – and using an unnecessary English idiom – it is however illustrative of why mainstream media will never properly serve the needs of some Pacific audiences and why dedicated Pacific language services are required.

It’s something the new Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media (ANZPM) entity will have to grapple with when it takes over TVNZ and RNZ next March.

Mind your language

ANZPM is tasked with delivering better public media outcomes for all New Zealanders, including under-served Pacific audiences.  Supporting Pacific languages is one objective that’s been included in the bill currently before parliament.

Even though 92% of Pacific people speak English and only 38% speak two languages, according to the 2018 census, the recently released Pacific Languages Strategy 2022-2032 provides ample justification for why Pacific languages should be prioritised to create “communities of healthy, educated, and productive citizens”.

The same census says 34% of the Pacific population were born overseas, suggesting that for a fair share of the Pacific community, English may not be their dominant language.

The issue is that the census question doesn’t measure fluency, it simply asks “in which language(s) could you have a conversation about a lot of everyday things”.

The security worker had lived in New Zealand for over 18 years and would probably have ticked English as one of his conversational languages. But the events that landed him in court suggests he wasn’t fluent enough to fully comprehend the nuances of the interview that angered him.

He’s not alone.  Multi-generational extended family events like Sunday to’ona’i (feast) can sometimes seem like an episode of the 1970s sitcom Mind Your Language.

It poses a complex challenge for ANZPM if it’s to produce engaging programmes to meet the diverse needs of Pacific audiences. Radio is less of a worry for Pacific language content, with the Radio 531pi national network, privately-owned Radio Samoa in Auckland, Samoa Capital Radio in Wellington and various Access Radio shows.  But it’s television that’s deficient.

ANZPM could offer or support a Pacific languages TV service, Establishment board chair Tracey Martin recently told the 531pi breakfast show Pacific Mornings with Aggie.  But she says it would be something to discuss with the new board and management – “if that’s what Pasifika communities want”.

Minister of broadcasting Willie Jackson (Image: Toby Morris)

Respectfully robust

Another issue the court case highlighted is the style of media that some Pacific audiences expect.

The values of respect and humility are deeply entrenched in most Pacific cultures.  The gotcha style of questioning or interrupting guests during an interview is considered rude and something Pacific journalists can struggle with. It goes against the grain.

It wasn’t lost on some in Pacific media circles that while there were numerous stories featuring Pacific communities at the Voyager Media Awards earlier this year, it wasn’t Pacific media outlets picking up the prizes.  They operate on a completely different cultural paradigm, especially those targeting older Pacific audiences. How many mainstream shows start their programmes with a prayer and a sermon?

This conflict of cultural norms may also partly explain why so few Pacific students view journalism as a serious career option.  And even if they do, it’s not long before they’re snapped up by a culturally-attuned government agency or NGO – an environment likely to be less competitive or cut-throat than mainstream media.

Commercial vs community

The director of the Better Public Media Trust Myles Thomas has a no-nonsense definition of public media – it’s media for audiences rather than advertisers.  The ANZPM mixed funding model means it’s a non-profit entity that receives direct government funding to focus on the needs of audiences.

The ANZPM radio service (currently RNZ) will remain non-commercial but the television arm (TVNZ) will still have a commercial function.  Tracey Martin is adamant though that the commercial orientation won’t overwhelm its public broadcasting goals.  But it’s difficult to see how it’ll work in practice.

Even if, for example, they wanted to schedule the current affairs show Tagata Pasifika in primetime, and take any loss of advertising on the chin, surely the ANZPM commercial folk would wince.  They don’t want their viewing numbers to dip because they’ll still have advertisers to appease on other shows that evening.  Once people hit that remote control button, it’s hard to win them back.

If minority audience programming is to feature more prominently, perhaps the Minister of Broadcasting Willie Jackson is correct when he says the ANZPM television service will require a serious change in corporate culture.

Content creation

A rose-tinted glasses view of the future is that ANZPM will commission more Pacific-focused content for TV screens, in both English and Pacific languages.

Myles Thomas says NZ on Air has previously been unable to fund some minority audience programming because it needs a willing platform to publish the content it funds.

Setting aside major productions such as the mini-series The Panthers and Duckrockers (the TV series prequel to Sione’s Wedding), when Pacific TV content is funded, it’s largely been consigned to non-commercial hours, including the weekend (when some viewers are at church), or an on-demand service (which not all Pacific communities can easily access).  Digital exclusion is a reality for up to 30% of the Pacific population.

The most memorable recent Pacific language content on a major TV network were the Covid advertisements.

Lealani Siaosi as Melani Anae in The Panthers (Image: Supplied)

It’s ironic that the television operator that has regularly screened Pacific-focussed programmes in primetime is the pay TV service Sky, with shows such as Pacific Brothers and Sisters and The Ditch produced by Kava Bowl Media.

So, there’s a challenge to produce Pacific content that appeals to mainstream audiences, but still retains authentic Pacific cultural characteristics and core values.

Duckrockers is certainly not minority audience viewing but it’s an excellent example of a primetime product and the cultural conundrum.  It may be a hit with younger audiences, but older viewers probably wouldn’t consider a show with a character named “testicle” in Samoan, to represent the God-fearing values they espouse.  Although both audiences deserve to have content that meets their information and entertainment needs.

Questions remain

The television industry is in a state of flux as many questions remain unanswered about the future of public broadcasting and the impact ANZPM will have on the media landscape.  Furthermore, National’s broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee has vowed to overturn the legislation if they become government next year.

Tracey Martin says her Establishment Board can only give recommendations, it’ll be up to the new ANZPM board and management to decide what it wants to do.

She says fears that it will overwhelm media operators like Pacific Media Network are unfounded, because the entity is required to collaborate and cooperate with other organisations to help deliver their public media goals – they don’t have to do everything themselves.

For Pacific audiences, the opportunity to even talk about a Pacific television service (linear and online) with ANZPM, has to be seen as a positive prospect.

If the new set-up leads to: more Pacific content being created in English and Pacific languages, and given increased prominence; it reaches disparate audiences on multiple broadcasting and online platforms, at times and ways that are convenient and accessible for Pacific people; then the community might find themselves with the same sense of relief as the security worker who ended up in court.

After the Sāmoan man was told he was being discharged without conviction, the judge asked him if he had any questions, he simply replied: “No your Honour, just thank you very much”.

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