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RNZ funding back to square one

RNZ receives a funding boost that takes it back to where it was before its budget was frozen in 2009, but Labour's big public media pledge lies in tatters. Thomas Coughlan reports.

Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran announced on Wednesday that “stage one” of the coalition Government's public media policy would commence with a $4.5 million boost to RNZ’s budget.

But $4.5m is a long way from funding a TV station, even when added to the $6m joint fund announced at the same time. TVNZ, which runs several TV channels, reported operating revenue of $316.5m last year.

It's also barely more than 10 percent of the $38m of extra funding Labour pledged to public media before the election, including Curran's plans for a new public television service grafted onto RNZ that was supposed to be known as RNZ+.

Others in the sector are also unconvinced by the idea of RNZ+. Recommendations from the Ministerial Advisory Group noted that “sector participants and stakeholders” let it be known that a full-service TV channel was “not supported”.

But Curran told journalists that her “vision remains the same,” although when it would be achieved remains a question.

The advisory group’s chair Michael Stiassny said issues like diversity in the media and the representation of Māori voices were the priority. Curran agreed.

The $38m cash injection into RNZ promised by Curran before the election was pared back to $15m in Budget 2018.

It has been suggested that this pruning was in response to the fallout from Curran’s controversial meeting with former RNZ executive Carol Hirschfeld just after the election. That breakfast meeting cost Hirschfeld her job when it emerged she had misled her bosses into believing it was the result of the pair bumping into each other, rather than the scheduled appointment it was. During the scandal that followed, it emerged that there was considerable division within RNZ about the feasibility or desirability of a full-service TV station.

A dose of steroids or a big climbdown?

RNZ’s Chief Executive Paul Thompson described the funding increase as “a dose of steroids”.

But National’s Broadcasting Spokesperson Melissa Lee told Newsroom that the funding boost was a long way from what was promised before the election.

“It’s a bit confusing as to what she’s thinking,” Lee said.

“It’s not clear what she wants out of it. She wanted a TV channel for radio. Anyone who has worked in radio and TV knows that radio doesn’t make good TV,” she said.

National MP Melissa Lee dominated the select committee hearing where RNZ bosses apologised over the Curran-Hirshfeld saga. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Lee, who is a former television producer, said that the funding increase was not enough to make a serious contribution to public service television.

“What I used to make Asia Down Under was made for more than $1m — that was only one half-hour programme every week for 40 weeks”.

Lee said the funding was not enough to develop a television station and criticized the $500,000 earmarked for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to investigate cross-media collaboration.

“It’s a big confusing because she’s already spent $1.5m on the advisory board to create a new public media funding commission,” Lee said.

“This is the advisory board that’s decided whether or not they need another advisory board,” she said.

Back to 2009 levels

Victoria University Lecturer Peter Thompson told Newsroom the funding injection, combined with National’s 2017 boost would bring RNZ’s funding roughly back to where it was before its funding freeze began in 2009.

Even back then many argued RNZ was underfunded. A KPMG report from 2007 said the broadcaster’s annual funding was $6m to $7m short.

“You’re almost up to the level of baseline funding in terms of spending power they had in 2007,” Thompson said.

But getting RNZ back to 2007 levels leaves precious little in the tank for a TV station.

“But if you want RNZ to expand, you’ll have to spend more," he said.

Either way, the spending is far below other OECD countries. Documents released by Curran’s office showed New Zealand’s spending on public broadcasting far below comparable countries.

Caption Public broadcasting funding in New Zealand versus comparable countries. Source: supplied.

More to come on TVNZ's role? 

Before the election TVNZ was effectively ruled-out as the avenue for a future Labour Government’s public broadcasting strategy.

Curran told Newsroom’s Mark Jennings in September that TVNZ was “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,” she said.

But yesterday she appeared to change her tune, promising $500,000 to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to investigate “capacity for cross-media collaboration and efficiencies”.

Curran was light on detail, saying “There are no options are on the table with respect to TVNZ at the moment”

But she said that there was a piece of work that was going to get underway “very soon” and she would talk more on TVNZ’s role in public broadcasting later.

Focus on underrepresented voices 

Curran signalled that a strong focus of the funding would be making sure Māori and Pacific voices were better represented by public broadcasting.

During RNZ’s annual report before Parliament’s Economic Development, Science and Innovation select committee, MPs questioned how effective RNZ’s Māori strategy had been.

Labour MP Tamati Coffey noted the lack of Māori presenters on RNZ.

The $6m contestable Joint Innovation Fund established today will have a focus on delivering content to underrepresented audiences including those Māori and Pacific voices.

It will allow independent producers to bid for funding to be broadcast on RNZ platforms, although it may be shared on other platforms like Māori TV as well.

The fund will be administered jointly by RNZ and NZ On-air but RNZ will have the deciding vote on the committee.

Te reo gap

Coffey told Newsroom he was excited for the strategy, but said there was a long way to go in Māori public broadcasting.

“I still think that RNZ has to sharpen up on their commitment to reo Māori programming and having Māori in those senior leadership positions and in those frontline leadership positions too,” Coffey said.

Coffey said RNZ should consider a Māori replacement for John Campbell as Checkpoint presenter.

He also noted there was a need for continued Māori broadcast funding across the spectrum, not just at RNZ.

“We’ve still got plenty of Iwi radio stations around the country that are providing that really local voice that you just can’t get when you’re trying to tell those stories in a studio from Wellington,” he said.

Lee told Newsroom that as part of representing minority voices, the Government should look at funding more content from Asian and other unrepresented minorities, as well as Māori and Pacific. 

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