Comment

NZ On Air: ‘Twin pillar’ media funding model holds up

The Government's recent public media funding announcement has been called into question by some, including Newsroom columnist Bryce Edwards. In a response to Edwards, NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson argues the "twin pillar" approach with her organisation and RNZ makes more sense than has been suggested.

Bryce Edwards discusses public media from a variety of angles. It’s a subject dear to NZ On Air’s heart, we welcome debate, and I’d like to add a few observations to Edwards’ points.

First, a contestable scheme and a public broadcaster are not the binary either/or mooted by Edwards. We don’t have "two very different funding models for public broadcasting". New Zealand has a public media funder – NZ On Air – which provides public media content on a range of platforms for different audiences including ring-fenced and fully independent funding for RNZ, to help insulate it from the Government of the day.

Along with RNZ funding, NZ On Air supports a range of public media entities – 12 community access radio stations, Pacific and student radio, content discovery websites, disability access services, New Zealand music, and, of course, fully contestable content funding.

The latter funding is for multi-platform content, with television broadcast required for large budget projects to maximise potential audience. Quite properly, we don’t have editorial control over anything we fund.

"In the 21st century media landscape it’s highly unlikely that one media provider model will fit all, and so a combination of ring-fenced and contestable funding is a clever response by a small country where media cost structures are always under pressure."

The contestable content part of our work is less an “important income stream for both private and state-owned commercial media”, as Edwards states, than an important income stream for the content creators who actually receive the funds.

But that’s not why we fund. The NZ On Air model is focused on serving different New Zealand audiences: some are brilliantly served by RNZ, others less so. In the 21st century media landscape it’s highly unlikely that one media provider model will fit all, and so a combination of ring-fenced and contestable funding is a clever response by a small country where media cost structures are always under pressure.

The “problems” with contestable funding asserted by Edwards simply aren’t true. There is a distinction between “popular” and “commercial” that is often misunderstood. “Popular” is a good thing – a target audience responding enthusiastically to well-made content is what we all want.

Popular does not always translate into “commercial” – namely, the hosting platform earning adequate revenue. NZ On Air does not fund commercial content, it supports great New Zealand content that will not get made without us.

Edwards also talks about “genuine public good programmes …. consigned to viewing slots that mean they aren’t watched by many”. So Country Calendarisn’t genuine public media? Or I Am ? Or our Sunday telefeatures?

Two players, RNZ and NZ On Air, collectively encourage a genuine diversity of public media content across key platforms for different audiences, young and old.

All are terrific primetime content that, because of the scale of production needed versus likely revenue, needs assistance to get them made. NZ On Air knows this because we do a detailed business analysis around every funding decision; any applicant will tell you securing NZ On Air funding is a tough road.

And the content playing offpeak? I’m surprised this trope is still making the rounds. NZ On Air insists all funded content is available online for a lengthy period – so if you want to find it at your leisure, you can. For some time now it hasn’t really mattered what time content originally screens.

I’m also surprised The Spinoff TV is cited as a system flaw. It is an experimental hybrid, it’s developing some terrific new talent, it may play better online, and MediaWorks is showing spunk in taking a punt. NZ On Air funds around 1000 hours of multi-media content a year – and you’d be hard-pressed to find a true "failure". There has to be room in a public media funding context for experimentation.

So while I’m obviously an interested party here, there’s a bit more deep thinking required before New Zealand’s twin-pillar approach to public media is dismissed. Two players, RNZ and NZ On Air, collectively encourage a genuine diversity of public media content across key platforms for different audiences, young and old.

I say we need more of that. And what we see is a minister thinking carefully in a very complex and fast-changing media landscape.

Jane Wrightson is the chief executive of NZ on Air and the former head of commissioned programmes at TVNZ.

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