Future of NZ Media At Risk?

On the back of Duncan Garner’s recent outburst, the media have been talking about themselves a bit lately, questioning the purpose of their existence. While TOP supports such critical existential discussions, we wonder whether they are asking the right questions. Is this a question of TVNZ vs Mediaworks, or a squabble over commercial vs public funding? Or is a greater question of informed democracy and public education at stake?

In a nutshell, TVNZ is owned by the Government and is commercially funded. It runs TVNZ 1, TVNZ 2 and TVNZ Duke. Mediaworks is wholly owned by a US company – Oaktree Capital – and runs Newshub, Three (what was TV3), ThreeLife, The Edge TV, and Bravo. Both organisations are struggling commercially as they compete for dwindling advertising revenues and the public’s attention. 

The last National Government made TVNZ a fully commercial broadcaster in 2011 when it removed its charter and thus any public service obligations. Labour still believes in the need for strong journalism to inform New Zealanders’ news and views and to tell our stories. But it is struggling to work out what this might look like in terms of the current structure. 

The online world is reshaping the way we consume media. It is clear that growing numbers of New Zealanders are getting their news and entertainment from online platforms. Platforms like TVNZ and TV3 used to control what we watch, but now that role has been taken over by Facebook, Netflix and YouTube. Even local sites like Stuff have more traction online than the old TV channels, which isn’t a good look.

For any platform, advertising dollars are crucial – they keep the lights on. Fewer eyeballs means fewer dollars, which spells commercial doom. In simple terms, Facebook and YouTube are slowly choking TVNZ and TV3. TVNZ’s profits crashed 43% this past year alone. TV3 began feeling the pinch first because TVNZ has a more patient investor – the New Zealand public, who are willing to put up with poor returns.

Does it matter if these old platforms wither and die? Sadly, it is hard to see how their downward spiral can be averted. Facebook and YouTube should certainly contribute to the local tax take, including paying to create the content that they profit from. But if people prefer to consume their media through Facebook and YouTube than TVNZ and TV3, should we stop them? Besides, in the online world, it’s the content that’s important, not the platform.

Given all this upheaval, what should be the purpose of government-funded journalism, news, and media?

TOP acknowledges that corporate media are no substitute for independent, public-interest journalism. We would like to see public media funding used more effectively to create a critically informed democracy.  Changing our free-to-air media content in this way, alongside our other Democracy Reset initiatives, would create a society where power is balanced and citizens feel connected and empowered to have a real say. We believe that government should serve the interests of all citizens – not just those who have the funds to lobby for policy changes – and respect intergenerational equity. 

To this end, TOP would sell TVNZ, which is now a commercial operation anyway, and use the proceeds to set up a Public Journalism Fund as part of NZ on Air. Some of the money from the Government’s proposed “Facebook tax” should also go to this fund.

NZ on Air is an independent New Zealand broadcast funding agency. It is an autonomous Crown entity that is separate from central government and governed by a board of six members appointed by the Minister of Broadcasting. NZ on Air is responsible for funding public-good broadcasting content across television, radio, and new media platforms. 

We believe NZ on Air is the best existing platform for providing quality media to New Zealanders. Under this model, Radio New Zealand, TVNZ, and other organisations would compete for programme funding alongside other platforms. 

Last week, TVNZ announced its intention to increase its local content spend by 26 percent next year, which is a big shift. In the next three years, TVNZ plans to wind down its inventory of overseas programmes and ramp up its local content. This is an encouraging sign. Yet, we wonder, will this content comprise more comprehensive journalism or just more local reality TV shows?

As Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In New Zealand, we could all benefit from a better understanding of each other’s ‘languages’ (or perspectives).

Of course, these measures wouldn’t solve all the problems of the digital era. The worrying thing for democracy is that online platforms like Facebook work out what people want to see, and then give them more of that. This means people are less likely to get both sides of the story. Savvy consumers can go straight to the content source, such as Newsroom or RNZ, but the majority remain locked in their echo chamber. The matter of solving this complex issue is occupying many of the best public policy minds on the planet right now. But that is a conversation for another day. 


Dr Naomi Pocock wrote a post-disciplinary PhD exploring concepts of 'home' within the context of return from long- term travel, at The University of Waikato. She is currently a playcentre Mum, with a background in business & entrepreneurship, who is volunteering for various organisations, including The Opportunities Party. Dr Pocock is in the process of creating an Early Childhood Education policy for TOP.

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