NZ’s slow-burning TV revolution

Research shows New Zealand adopting internet TV while Sky falls, and the revolution has been 20 years in the making writes Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

“Here’s a radical idea: Let people pay for the content they want.”

Paul Brislen, speaking to Fairfax Media as CEO of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand in 2011, advocated fiercely for improved online entertainment options and better home broadband.

What some New Zealanders had been doing to get good telly, Brislen told Fairfax that same year, made pirates of some and liars of others: "You're having to tell lies in order to give them money.” 

What he meant was people reconfiguring their internet settings to fool Netflix (still years away from entering the local market) into thinking they were accessing the service from a country with legitimate access. They subscribed, they paid, they enjoyed. 

This digital disobedience was an important step towards change, because it wasn’t piracy. People wanted to pay for good telly on a good service at a fair price. Sky TV appeared to do a perverse reading of the project management triangle (where planners are asked to choose only two options from fast, good, and cheap) in which all three looked to have been delivered at once. The problem is, only a moron in a hurry (or perhaps a broadcasting shareholder) might think charging just under $50 per month for a basic package and charging again for quality viewing is a good service, fairly priced. 

No wonder some folks think they’re offering sound economic advice to wannabe homeowners by suggesting maybe the Sky box ought to go. How expensive! But they’re talking down to the generations who grew up knowing Sky TV was uneconomical, and domestic TV was a narrow path. 

Unsurprisingly, it’s these generations - particularly Millennials - whose video streaming habits were among the most telling in research reported on by Newsroom’s Morgan Tait. 

Trace Research’s survey results indicated that by February 2017, almost half of all New Zealanders were watching video online. Millennials were getting as much as 80 percent of their video over the internet and, tellingly, the dominant video platform was YouTube. In her commentary on the early days of TV Three’s The Project, Anna Connell said it was trying to gain an audience that was looking elsewhere for their needs, with YouTube her prime example. 

Truth be told, New Zealand’s Gen-Xers and Millennials have been looking elsewhere for over 20 years. It’s taken a great deal of pressure to force the market to wake up. 

"Good telly through good services at a fair price. What a radical idea."

It was a coup for local audiences when TVNZ brought the sitcom Friends to local screens in 1995, so soon after its American debut, but the success faded to irrelevance when the internet really became part of New Zealand life. By the year 2000, it had become uncomfortably clear there were cultural conversations New Zealanders weren’t involved in.

The watercooler was humming, and locals couldn’t participate because the subject matter was blocked by geography, by law, by people who thought they knew better than everyone else. The protective measures taken to stop people from creating or accessing “pirated” media were shortsighted at best, insulting at worst. 

For $40, a person could buy a DVD and, before the main feature, be confronted with a tone-deaf warning to viewers - they wouldn’t steal a car or engage in violent crime, so why “steal” a movie? For $30, a person could buy a CD and receive a bonus legal threat in the form of an ugly little sticker on the CD case.

The enemies of the New Zealand record industry when it launched its “BRN & GTBRNT” campaign against music piracy in 2001 were, in its own words: “just about everyone but with a predominance of teenagers and young adults."

BRN & GTBRNT wasn’t a PR offensive, it was a PR offence. 

People found ways to bridge the TV gap. Some turned to dodgy downloads, others shopped for import DVDs, and by the mid-2000s the technology existed for frustrated consumers to become curators and creators. YouTube has broadened and simplified people’s access to video on both sides of the camera.

After years of “disruption,” the New Zealand entertainment and telecommunications landscape looks a lot more like the one Brislen saw in his crystal ball. $15 will get you a month’s subscription to Spotify and all the music you could ever want, as long as you don’t want Taylor Swift. $15 will get you a perfectly legitimate, made-for-NZ Netflix subscription. Sky TV’s Neon and Lightbox, Spark’s homegrown streaming TV service, cost about $20 and $13 per month respectively. 

In my household, in addition to all the YouTube viewing, we combine Netflix, Neon, and Lightbox. (Disclosure: As Spark customers on the right plan, our Netflix and Lightbox are bundled-in free - but that should tell you something about the guts of our broadband service as well. Better content meaning better broadband, just as nature intended.) The numbers in Trace Research’s report put YouTube at the top of the tree with roughly 70% of online viewers, while Netflix leads the way for paid services with approximately one in three viewers. 

New Zealanders have been waiting a long time, not just for these services but for assurance that their needs mattered. Trace’s figures indicate the tide is turning. The teenagers and young adults of 2001 are the thirty- and forty-somethings now taking leadership roles across the country, and their younger siblings and children contribute with voices and choices of their own. Power to them, and power to the businesses that listen. 

Good telly through good services at a fair price. What a radical idea. 

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