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Bryce Edwards: Labour’s public broadcasting paralysis

The Labour Party came into office promising great things for public broadcasting, but so far it looks like it won't deliver. Bryce Edwards argues that part of the problem is the debate often centres around technology rather than how public good media should be funded and produced.

Last week the Minister of Broadcasting Clare Curran gave out some more money for public media, and she gave us a glimpse of where she might be taking public broadcasting. Unfortunately, neither the money, nor the glimpse of the future, offers much confidence that public broadcasting is being fixed.

Certainly, the new funding wasn’t that impressive. As Victoria University’s Peter Thompson has pointed out, the increased funding really only puts RNZ back to 2009 levels, before the National government froze it.

Even then, a KPMG report in 2007 said it was already $6-7 million short. With the other additional announced funding (also much reduced on pre-election promises) being allocated as contestable funding, what we currently have is very much the status quo, albeit with a few more dollars.

Before the election, Curran promised an immediate huge funding increase, and said an RNZ-driven pure public broadcasting TV channel ('RNZ+') would be established.

A choice of funding models: Contestability vs fully-funded public broadcasting

We currently have two very different funding models for public broadcasting. For radio, we mostly have a public service model with direct funding for RNZ. For television (and also now for online content) we have, through NZ On Air, contestable funding that has become an important income stream for both private and state owned commercial media to fund their local content.

There is a danger that the debate over RNZ+ will become the proxy for the real debate over how to deliver “public sector media”. The focus actually needs to be on the core issue of whether this public good is best produced and delivered by a contestable funding model (eg NZ On Air), or whether it requires a stand-alone directly funded organisation (eg RNZ) where public sector journalist values and culture are nurtured and protected from commercial pressures. Whether a new TV channel is part of the mix is largely irrelevant.

With Clare Curran’s announcement last week, we can see that the Government has decided to use a mix of those models. But to make proper progress on public broadcasting the Government will eventually have to go with one model or the other.

The last Labour Government could never really explain why public radio needed the fully-funded model while television was best with the fundamentally different contestable system. Certainly most other countries’ public systems – particularly the ABC, BBC and PBS – have a consistent approach across radio and television. Ever since TVNZ was put on a fully commercial footing there have been many and varied attempts (such as the charter) to retrofit public sector journalism. It has never really worked and RNZ+ TV is an acknowledgement of that. The actual formats were irrelevant then, and are irrelevant now and in the future – whatever they are.

In any case, few are happy with the current mix, even those getting NZ on Air funding, who correctly point out that its total real value has eroded over the years as well.

Problems with the contestable-funding model

The contestable funding model has not delivered for television, according to some. It has often produced popular programmes that many argue should, could and would have been commercially funded without state subsidisation. At other times, the model has produced genuine public good programmes which wouldn’t otherwise be made – but are consigned to viewing slots that mean they aren’t watched by many.

Also, programmes are not given much chance to develop. A classic example is the current Spinoff TV programme broadcast on Three. The series received $700,000 from NZ On Air but has seen its ratings plunge and critics mostly politely silent, with a notable and devastating exception.

The timeslot shift announced this week for Spinoff TV was entirely predictable. Therein lies the rub. The hybrid model may be able to fund programmes that wouldn’t otherwise be made, but the commercial model lives and dies by ratings, on a very short-term basis. So, while Spinoff TV may be irredeemable, some successful programmes start out with problems and need some time to mature and develop. We will probably never know now as Spinoff TV speeds down the ratings/timeslot death spiral.

Problems with the public sector model

The public sector agency model has hit quite a few bumps, too. First, there was a self-inflicted wound over Curran’s coffee meeting with Carol Hirschfeld, which can’t have helped the budget bid.

Second, it’s clear from the comments of RNZ chief Paul Thompson, and from the string of recent departures from RNZ, including John Campbell for whom the expansion into video was clearly a crucial part of his vision for RNZ, that the RNZ+ TV channel is far from assured or agreed.

The obvious criticism is that, at the very time when most linear television channels are looking towards the steep decline of their businesses (even previously extremely successful ones such as Sky TV), it makes no sense for the Government to invest so heavily in a startup based on a dying model.

Recent indications by Curran that she’s having a fresh look at TVNZ’s public good capabilities may reflect her realisation that RNZ+ may be too hard and too costly.

Economics might decide the broadcast funding model

Prior to last year’s election, Clare Curran clearly nailed her colours to the public sector model, in the form of RNZ TV. Post-election though, she has encountered several major hurdles.

One basic problem is that this public sector model is not popular with private media. Shifting funding focus away from commercial broadcasters to public bodies at the exact time global media are suffering the biggest economic crisis in history was always going to provoke a strong reaction. Survival is literally on the line for some media organisations.

Yet, it could be argued that this is actually the best time to get broadcasters to embrace public good content. With commercial media (particularly news and current affairs) desperate for secure income streams, contestable public funding agencies should be able to drive a hard bargain.

Nonetheless, the private media’s current economic problems shouldn’t decide the Government’s funding model. For far too long the direct interests of major commercial broadcasters have dominated public broadcasting funding policies and priorities. The ground is shaking and shifting underneath them, but they should not look to the Government to steady their business models while they fully adapt.

Labour’s current public broadcasting paralysis isn’t sustainable

Current changes in the economics of the media are, in fact, showing us that a public and quality broadcast model is needed more than ever. The current scramble for media mergers, content sharing and blurring of editorial and advertising content highlights the need for quality journalism that is insulated from ratings, advertiser and clickbait-driven content decisions.

The Minister of Broadcasting now needs to make a clear choice about which model will take public journalism forward in the future. The current “dollar each way” approach will need give way to higher stakes return soon if progress is to be made. As a minister in a Government that squeaked on to the Treasury benches last year and whose re-election is far from assured, Clare Curran cannot afford another year of keeping options open.

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