RNZ cash comes with expectations

Stand by for some more news. If Labour win the election, RNZ will become a fully-fledged TV station with a prime-time news bulletin, probably at 7pm.

Labour has looked around the world and decided that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is the best model for its plans to dramatically boost public broadcasting in New Zealand.

RNZ will get an injection of funding, probably between an additional $20-$30 million to become a true multi-media outfit.

The announcement was made in the cavernous Studio 5 at the Auckland film studios in Henderson today.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern committed $38m, in total, to public media initiatives.

RNZ will get the bulk of it, but other media, particularly new start-ups and media outlets doing investigative journalism will be able to get additional funding through NZ on Air. 

The actual amounts going to RNZ and NZ on Air will be decided by a public media funding commission which will have cross-party membership.

Ardern stressed the importance of media independence, “so we (politicians) are all held to account”.

Labour’s plan to turn RNZ into a mini ABC is probably the most cost-effective solution to the issues facing public broadcasting.

Ardern observed that RNZ has been underfunded by a National Government for the last nine years; but reinstating the defunct TVNZ 7 could’ve been an option.

After all, TVNZ has the infrastructure and expertise sitting there – why not use it?

The reason is simple. Labour believes any trace of a public broadcasting culture disappeared from TVNZ long ago. It feels it simply couldn’t trust TVNZ’s management to turn the “commercial broadcaster” into one that provides a public service.

Clare Curran, Labour’s spokeswoman on broadcasting and chief architect of its new policy told me after the official launch that bringing back a charter for TVNZ wouldn’t work.

$30 million is not a lot of money when you are expected to turn what is primarily a radio platform into a fully-fledged free-to-air TV network.

“They are just not interested in a public service, they are fully commercial – we might have been able to change them three years ago, but not now. We would waste years battling with them and we don’t have time for that. We want this to happen now and we can do it a lot faster by building up RNZ.”

Given TVNZ doesn’t figure in any of its public media plans, the case for retaining state ownership of the broadcaster becomes weak or non-existent.

Curran said Labour had given a lot of thought to selling TVNZ but, in the end, ruled it out.

“Our policy is not to sell assets, so we will just let it continue and have it pay the Government a dividend.”

There is, of course a flaw in this policy; if current trends continue, TVNZ will be unprofitable in a few years and need a handout from the state. What will Labour or for that matter National, do then?

Politics is getting in the way of pragmatism when it comes to selling TVNZ.

Labour’s new policy has received a cautious thumbs-up from the Coalition for Better Broadcasting.

Chair Peter Thompson said: “It is a positive step forward from where we are now in terms of public service broadcasting and RNZ is probably the right vehicle as opposed to NZ First’s plan to turn TV One into a non-commercial channel, that could cost up to $150 million.”

RNZ management will also be slightly nervous when they examine the details of Labour’s policy.

Thirty million is not a lot of money when you are expected to turn what is primarily a radio platform into a fully-fledged free-to-air TV network.

Curran has high expectations. “We will be making it clear that we want an emphasis on news and current affairs, more Pasifika programming and much more children’s programming, and we want it broadcast in a traditional linear way.”

There is no doubt that Labour’s plan will change the television landscape. The clear winner is RNZ, and the losers could well be TVNZ and Three.

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