No way back from media’s forbidden fruit

Anna Rawhiti-Connell has no desire to see any further degradation of the news media in New Zealand, but something has to change. 

I’m watching three TV shows at the moment – Glow on Netflix, and Succession and The Loudest Voice on Neon. All three have storylines running about television. In Glow, a bid to buy a local TV station is billed as a great investment, something that seems feasible only because it’s set in the 1980s. 

Here at home, there’s a real-life drama unfolding about the state of television in New Zealand. It’s a rumbling backstory that’s been brought into the foreground by TVNZ’s announcement that it would no longer be paying the government a dividend, and in the last week, an impassioned opinion piece from Newshub’s chief news officer, Hal Crawford. 

The media has more capacity than most to talk about itself and there have been many column inches dedicated to this issue – all are worth a read. But as Glen Scanlon, former head of news and digital at RNZ, recently pointed out on Twitter, there’s a voice that’s absent from much of this expert commentary – that of the audience. Without it, there’s a risk of the conversation about television and media in New Zealand becoming quite paternalistic and akin to public health messaging. You will eat your news, with all its important nutrients, and you will like it!

I am a media apologist. I will generally defend the rights of any and all media outlets in New Zealand to exist and to do what they must to survive and ideally, thrive. I think, on balance, media in this country do a good job of speaking truth to power and fulfilling their vital role as the fourth estate. I also agree with Crawford that many media outlets in this country are in a precarious state and that is, rightly, cause for concern. 

I depart from Crawford’s views when I step back from the insider, in-depth commentary of this issue and try to answer Scanlon’s call to think about the audience. Sample size of one, but as an enthusiastic consumer of news media, I don’t necessarily want to keep being told that news, as it’s currently served, is good for me and that I must continue to eat it or wither on the vine of the ill-informed masses. My commentator head says it’s important, but my consumer heart tells a very different story. 

We can all say the right things about the role of the media and truly believe them. Yet our VPN using, ad-blocking, Netflix smorgasbord-loving selves indulge in behaviour every day that contributes to the strangulation of the model that sustains and supports the things we hold so dear. Why?

I have watched the 6 o’clock news twice in 10 years. I had to google who reads it on TV One. I haven’t watched the news because I don’t need to. Last time I saw it, it was like stepping back in time; a relic from the past where we only had one or two sources of information. There were people reading it to us from a desk and then a live cross to not a lot where another person read some more news that I was already caught up on. There were multiple ad breaks where I watched some brands try to make me cry with a short “film”, desperately trying to sell me on them by not telling me what they sell. There were others that yelled about sales for things I may or may not need that week. There was then a separate person to tell me about sports and another to tell me about weather. This went on for an hour. 

The 6 o’clock news might be the flagship product for both TVNZ and Newshub, the beating, profitable heart of the ‘news media is vital to democracy’ argument, but it’s the least defensible product of all them. It runs for an hour because you can sell more ads without dramatically increasing the cost of producing it. It offers up a meal of meat and three vege at the same time every day that’s interrupted multiple times by an annoying waiter. By the time 6 o’clock rolls around, many of us have already over-indulged in an ad-free buffet at our leisure. 

Crawford is bang on when he acknowledges the inevitably of this change in our behaviour and the market failure of commercially viable news production. His solution is that the government needs to step-up and intervene, funding the news like it funds the judiciary. 

What would the government be funding? More of the same diet that consumers are rejecting? We can be told over and over again that it’s a necessary alternative to the evil forces that have disrupted media but that’s not going to win the hearts and minds of an audience who have long since departed traditional media shores. 

An argument has also emerged for TVNZ to become a proper public broadcaster - non-commercial, with no advertising. This would theoretically allow the $300m advertisers currently spend with them to flow back to remaining commercial media. The problem with this argument is that it still relies on the old and increasingly broken model of advertising-funded media which relies on an increasingly broken model of advertising. It posits that Newshub’s main competitor is TVNZ as opposed to the whole internet and 20-something years of radically changing human behaviour. 

If you were to give audiences a voice in this conversation, I doubt a single one is going to say ‘Yes, more ads!’ no matter how many times you tell them it’s what they must swallow to continue enjoying their vitally important news. 

We’re flocking to services that don’t have ads, not only to embrace innovative new choices but because we’re wholeheartedly rejecting the interruptive broadcast advertising model. It’s not just that it’s annoying, it’s that it’s increasingly ineffective and holds very little value to us. We no longer need to be told about consumer products in this way. Instead, we seek out our own information in our own time, as and when we need to make a purchasing decision.

We can all say the right things about the role of the media and truly believe them. Yet our VPN using, ad-blocking, Netflix smorgasbord-loving selves indulge in behaviour every day that contributes to the strangulation of the model that sustains and supports the things we hold so dear. Why? It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we’ve tasted forbidden fruit and refuse to return to our former diets. No amount of public health style messaging about the necessity of the news media is going to reverse that.  

There is no simple way through this one and I have absolutely no desire to see any further degradation of the news media in New Zealand. But to advance this conversation, more media are going to need to heed Scanlon’s call to think about their audiences in ways beyond ratings to sell to advertisers. Constantly framing our choices as bad and treating us like patients who need to be told to eat our Wheaties is a sure-fire way to turn people off. It also positions the evolution of media consumption as some kind of inevitability that we’ve all blindly taken up like mindless automatons, as opposed to a consumer reaction to what we are being offered. 

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