TVNZ and RNZ now in a waiting game

The future of TVNZ and RNZ and whether they will be replaced by a new, single public broadcaster depends on a business case now being prepared for Cabinet. The future of Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi might also depend on the outcome, Mark Jennings writes.

When Labour’s golden boy, Kris Faafoi, was handed the broadcasting portfolio following the demise of the clumsy Clare Curran, a degree of optimism surged through the media industry.

Here, at last, was someone who really understood the industry.

In the past, the broadcasting portfolio has been the preserve of junior ministers – think Marian Hobbs, Craig Foss, and Clare Curran. Or minsters who had other, more important tasks – think Amy Adams and Simon Bridges. You need to go back to Steve Maharey (who briefly acted in the role in the Clark government) to find someone with serious empathy for, and understanding of, the job.

Faafoi was not only seen as media-friendly, competent, and on the way up but he also had the ear of the Government’s most powerful players, Ardern and Robertson.

Linda Clark, lawyer, media commentator, former TVNZ political editor and sometimes advisor to the Labour Party, has described Faafoi as a “once in a generation” broadcasting minister.

So far he has been anything but. The lack of detail in his announcement on a proposed restructuring of public media brought groans of despair from all sectors of the industry.

Speaking at the New Zealand Broadcasting School in Christchurch and being live-streamed into most of the country’s newsrooms, Faafoi announced what we already knew – that a business case is being prepared to support, or not support, the idea of a new public media entity.

This 'news' was revealed some weeks ago by RNZ’s political editor, Jane Patterson. Earlier, in November 2019, Patterson broke the story that Faafoi was favouring a plan to disestablish RNZ and TVNZ and create a new organisation from scratch.

The only additional piece of detail Faafoi gave today was that the “business case” will be prepared by PWC.

Faafoi has now held the portfolio for 18 months. It is not his fault, but in that time the revenue crisis afflicting most of New Zealand’s mainstream media outlets has gone from bad to dismal. 

MediaWorks has put its loss-making TV arm on the market and indicated it may close if a buyer isn’t found. NZME, Sky, and TVNZ have all suspended their dividends as they battle Netflix, Facebook and Google.

The impact of a new “supersized” public broadcaster is going to be a vital factor in the future media landscape, which looks like it will soon have fewer players.

The question Faafoi has failed to answer, or at least answer convincingly, is this: what are the benefits of creating a single organisation from scratch and scrapping TVNZ and RNZ?

Faafoi claims there are two – greater scale and nimbleness. 

If this is not about cost savings - and Faafoi assures us it is not - then it is hard to see what benefit greater scale is going to have. 

Placing radio, TV and online under one roof and one management team won’t help TVNZ compete any better with monsters like Netflix, Disney and Amazon. And it won’t help radio compete any better with Spotify.

It may bulk up the new entity’s online offering but that could seriously hurt the other local players like Stuff, NZ Herald and Newshub. Even more so if the online platforms are allowed to carry advertising.

According to Faafoi, the new entity will be “nimble” so it can respond to new platforms that “might pop up”.

Fair enough, but bigger organisations tend not to be nimbler, and responding to changing technology is often more about capital investment than recognising the threat. Just ask MediaWorks.

As Patterson foreshadowed, the new entity will have a “mixed funding” model and Faafoi says it will have to, “wash its own face” but in “a non-profit sense”. Presumably, PWC will work out what this means. 

Faafoi has confirmed that the new outfit will have a very strong public charter (code for less advertising on TVNZ). He also confirmed that NZ on Air, which funds projects for all media, will stay, so it is unlikely any money will be siphoned from there. 

It all adds up to the Government having to stump up a considerable sum, to first build, and then sustain, the new “supersized” outfit.

Faafoi has indicated that the timeframe for preparing the business case is six months. This means it will go in front of Cabinet just prior to the election. The minister concedes it will be “chewed over" for a while so it is unlikely we will see a yes/no decision much before Christmas.

In the short-term, Faafoi will need to grapple with some very angry classical music fans.

RNZ’s decision to move Concert FM to an AM frequency and replace its presenters with automation is not going down well in Roslyn, Merivale, Kelburn and Remuera. The noise from the older demographic in these quarters is about to get very loud.

Faafoi says he is “working on a plan to mitigate some of the issues" with RNZ deciding to use the FM frequency for a mix of different music genres, instead of just classical music.

If the former One News reporter can sort this out, and future-proof public media like he’s promising, then maybe he is destined to climb the cabinet rankings in a hurry. On the other hand, he could follow previous ministers of broadcasting and end up disappointing everyone.

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