Labour’s non-commercial RNZ+ multi-media network is a brilliant idea – but it makes no sense to keep it and retain public ownership of TVNZ, argues Duncan Greive.
[We will] develop a new public digital media service… [including] a free-to-air noncommercial television service. The working title is ‘RNZ+’
TVNZ will remain in public ownership.
Labour released the ‘Broadcasting and Digital Media’ section of its ‘Manifesto 2017’ today, a six page document which seeks to pivot to the future while not abandoning the past, much like the media itself. The hero item is a $38m package of funding for the first year’s work on RNZ+: a “a non-commercial, audio-visual and multi-platform entity [including] include a free-to-air noncommercial television service… developed from Radio New Zealand. The working title is ‘RNZ+’.”
This is essentially a beefed up version of what we already have at RNZ – which operates “a non-commercial, audio-visual and multi-platform entity” across radio, web, social and some free-to-air – chiefly bolting on a full non-commercial free-to-air TV channel.
How that $38m gets split will be critical. If it leans too much on television it risks resourcing a (slowly, but still) dying medium which is predominantly enjoyed by older New Zealanders.
Lean too far toward online and it could create another TVNZ7 – the non-commercial channel launched in 2008 which had a lot of worthy but poorly-lit content that few watched (though all that did signed a petition afterwards).
There’s a further danger that a really grunty online news channel would have a chilling effect on private news media – read: mainly Stuff and the Herald – cutting directly into their still-thin digital revenue streams just at the moment that earlier investment should be starting to bear fruit.
It also, in its emphasis on more state-owned and non-commercial media, represents a victory for the ‘Campaign for Better Broadcasting’ – a group of well-meaning public broadcasting enthusiasts who have long argued that New Zealand needs an ABC / BBC-style commercial-free TV channel.
On balance the RNZ+ side of the equation looks positive. Under Paul Thompson’s reign as Chief Executive the organisation has gone from a moribund and elitist bureaucracy to a much more vibrant and vital entity. There are new and younger hosts; syndication agreements and collaborations with multiple media outlets; an impressive online operation; a growing stable of original podcasts and a cool youth-centric website.
That all this has been accomplished with year after year of zero budgets suggests that RNZ has become adept at doing a lot with relatively little – and thus the $38m it’s being offered (roughly doubling its current budget) could go a long way.
That’s the good stuff. The rest is basically a kick the can exercise: NZ on Air to continue in current form, subject to a review; an interesting but maddeningly vague reference to “investigate ways to support” investigative journalism “across all media platforms” – including a specific reference to “print media”; “no policy to bring all media and advertising standards and complaints procedures together under one entity” – IE retention of the Broadcasting Standards Authority in its current archaic form.
So far, so good enough: the fact is that the pace media is changing – like that of many industries – is faster than government can realistically handle. Maybe it’s the new normal, maybe the smoke clears and some sort of stability ensues. But its definitely a hard environment in which to legislate, let’s not kid ourselves.
The one section which really screams out is this: ‘TVNZ will remain in public ownership’. Because, why? A decade ago the previous Labour government attempted to regain control of TVNZ. It instituted a charter and funded it to run identity-fostering channels like Heartland, TVNZ6 and TVNZ7. Bluntly, the host rejected its new appendages.
Now we have a very similar intention, pushed through a completely different entity. TVNZ has proven itself so resistant to even token displays of public-spiritedness that this current Labour administration has decided to cut it out almost entirely, only asking that it help RNZ+ with some basic “technical, operational and ‘back-office’ services”, while showing their trust in TVNZ by warning that these will come “at audited and transparent cost with an agreed margin”.
Given that we are now setting up, essentially, a second branch of TVNZ on a non-commercial basis – something New Zealand television was for only a matter of months following its debut in 1960 – the matter of TVNZ’s public ownership screams for attention. It is no longer paying a dividend of any substance to the government: a pitiful $1.4m will be returned this year, and, as mentioned before, it proudly refuses to entertain any conception of non-commercial public utility. Yet it retains a huge audience which would be valuable to some potential acquirers, and has enough green digital shoots to be plausible as something more than a pure sunset business.
For now at least. Who knows what the future holds? It might be that TV channels have only a few years of natural life left. In which case, isn’t the most responsible thing a government can do to get out while it still can, and to pour what it gains into RNZ+?
Unfortunately, while much of its policy implicitly shows how little faith Labour has in TVNZ, it remains unwilling to take the painful but necessary step of actually cutting the cord.
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.