One small step for public media funding

The Government's decision to establish a commission to fund public media is a first step toward revitalising public interest.

The establishment of the group to advise the Government on the structure and function of the proposed funding commission, announced in a Cabinet paper, is only a first step - but it is in the right direction.

The immediate task will be to consider the initial disbursement of the $38m of additional funding earmarked for public media. Although still subject to budget approval, the funding will be essential for the continuing (and expanding) roles of RNZ and NZ On Air. 

This new injection of public money is a welcome reversal of the funding freeze on the public media sector under the past three governments. Although the expansion of high speed broadband has seen a rapid uptake of new on-demand services like Netflix, there remain significant gaps for those whose interests extend beyond binge-watching Game of Thrones. 

The myth of digital plenty

National’s philosophy assumed that the digital multi-media environment would provide a cornucopia of choice while traditional public media services could be left in limbo. On that pretext, it abolished the TVNZ Charter (which had a difficult dual remit) and discontinued the funding for TVNZ 6 and 7, arguing that NZ On Air’s contestable funding would ensure a diverse range of local content. 

But the reality is that none of the quality programmes screened on TVNZ 6 or 7 have survived. Many local genres have disappeared from our screens, especially educational and children’s programming. Meanwhile, in-depth current affairs has mainly been pushed into off-peak slots because other genres generate better margins in prime time.

As Minister Claire Curran’s cabinet paper duly notes, the private media sector is also facing significant commercial pressures. Consequently, there is a wide range of vested media interests lobbying for a cut of the additional government funding. Mediaworks CEO, Michael Anderson, has publicly called for the plans to extend RNZ’s presence into television to be shelved. 

Television still a crucial medium

Labour’s election manifesto recognised that a commercial-free television service was still a crucial component of public service provisions. Despite the decline in audiences for linear scheduled broadcasts, rumours of television’s demise are premature. A 2016 NZ On Air report found that around 90 percent of the New Zealand public still watch traditional linear television and that even among the 15-39 demographic, almost two thirds watch every day. 

The Government has dismissed the idea of TVNZ resuming any sort of public service role, preferring RNZ’s public service ethos, although its under-funding over the preceding nine years has entailed cuts to radio.

A key challenge for the advisory board is therefore going to be to determine how much it will cost to establish the RNZ+ channel and ensure it delivers on policy expectations without imposing further stress on RNZ’s radio operations. 

The cost of sustaining TVNZ7 back in 2012 was estimated to be around $17m per year. By way of comparison, the Māori Television Service receives around $33m in direct funding as well as being the principal broadcaster of content funded through TMP’s contestable fund. 

If the desired scale and scope of RNZ+ is modest and closer to the TVNZ7 model, then at a very minimum it would require $20m per year, not including set-up costs. .

RNZ chair Richard Griffin has already played down expectations, suggesting that RNZ+ was "not about a new television station per se". Assuming the chair did not intend to disavow the new Government’s expectations for RNZ, it seems the broadcaster's expansion into television will be a continuation of their current trajectory toward cross-platform content distribution. 

Contestable funding conundrums

NZ On Air, meanwhile, recently restructured its contestable funding model. This extends the eligibility of non-broadcast content for funding (although some funding limits apply to non-broadcast proposals). NZ On Air has also funded some (regional) news and investigative journalism ventures as eligible genres. Projects such as The Valley, a collaboration between Stuff, Mediaworks and NZ On Air attest to the potential of such a model.

However, NZ On Air’s own budget freeze has coincided with the digital disruption of traditional value chains. In turn this has increased the commercial opportunity cost of scheduling genres which do not optimise audience ratings. The major structural limitation of the contestable model is that it affords commercial TV programmers gatekeeping power over what content will be screened - with the result that some key genres (e.g. children’s programming, arts and science programmes etc) are often ignored even when funding is available.

Indeed, last year NZ On Air itself declined proposals for further series of Back Benches and Media Take (the last surviving programmes from the TVNZ 7 era). As demand from the private sector media for public funding subsidies increases, the advisory committee and the Government will need to consider how to ensure the contestable fund can remain insulated from the commercial pressures for which it is intended to compensate. 

Both RNZ and NZ On Air play a key role

The Government appears to prefer a clearer functional distinction between the funding allocated to NZ on Air and RNZ, but in some respects their respective functions within the media ecology are complementary. NZ On Air ideally needs non-commercial operators to schedule the local content proposals in the genres the commercial networks decline. 

Meanwhile, assuming RNZ+ will produce its own news and current affairs, it seems inevitable that a substantial proportion of its other content will need to be commissioned from the independent production sector (which NZ On Air may well regard as a role best suited to itself). Either way, a significant proportion of the additional funding is likely to extend to local content producers. 

Challenges for the new Funding Commission

As Minister Curran’s cabinet paper rightly notes, compared with other advanced economies, New Zealand has one of the lowest per capita expenditures on public media, higher only than the USA (which has a much larger population and economies of scale). The additional $38m, while significant, will still not place New Zealand on the same level as comparable countries such as Denmark, Finland or Ireland. 

The advisory committee and any subsequent commission must therefore be careful that their initial assessments and recommendations do not inadvertently lock in a framework of policy benchmarks too conservative in scope to redress the chronic neglect of public media provisions. The tension between what is deemed to be economically feasible and politically realistic needs to be part of the debate. 

It is therefore interesting that the cabinet paper suggests that regulatory interventions beyond media ownership and funding are not within the immediate scope of consideration. Given the prospective new entity’s primary focus on funding allocations, that is not unreasonable, but the Government must bear in mind that the historically weak regulatory framework for the NZ media sector has been a key factor underpinning the current disruptions in the media ecology (including the co-option of advertising revenues by Google and Facebook, neither of which contribute towards the content audiences discover through them).

The establishment of an advisory group which will help shape the establishment of the Public Media Funding Commission is an important step forward, as is the commitment of long-overdue public funding. But the critical factor determining the success of this new approach toward public media will be the vision of the new Minister of Broadcasting, Communication and Digital media, coupled with the political will of the new Government to back their manifesto commitments. 

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