A cautious welcome for potential public media model
Better Public Media cautiously welcomes the news that the government is considering establishing a multi-platform public media provider.
Whether or not the proposed new model, combining RNZ and TVNZ, will be functional depends on the details of the structure and its funding - which have not been formally announced.
RNZ and TVNZ have been driven by very different operational priorities for the best part of three decades. As the lesson on the TVNZ Charter model (2003-11) showed, it is not a simple task to glue public service and commercial priorities together in the same institution without significant compromises.
BPM Chair Peter Thompson said, “It is good that the proposed model will have a ‘clearly defined public media mandate and purpose, with the core functions of a globally recognised public media entity’. However, it is of paramount importance that the funding matches the vision. It is therefore a concern that the suggestion is only ‘some’ of the channels and services ‘may’ be advertising-free.”
“Hybrid public/commercial funding models can work but only where a) the level of public funding exceeds the level of commercial funding and b) where core services like news and current affairs are completely insulated from commercial priorities.”
Examples of models where a hybrid public/commercial model has proven sustainable are SBS in Australia, RTE in Ireland and the original Channel 4 set-up in the UK. However, all of these have a high ratio of public to commercial funding.
“The problem with trying to use commercial revenue to underpin public media services is that commissioning and scheduling decisions will always be shaped by the imperative to maximise ratings,” Thompson said. “This precludes many genres of programme which pose a commercial risk or would only deliver niche audiences. It is impossible to provide a full range of programmes serving a full range of audience needs on a commercial basis.
“Fully-funded core services are essential.”
There will be strong public concern for RNZ under such a model. Despite being under-funded for nearly a decade, RNZ has continued to provide an excellent service across multiple platforms because its funding comes from government via NZ On Air. And RNZ National remains our most listened to radio station.
“If RNZ were forced to factor in commercial ratings in its programming then its Charter would be immediately compromised,” Thompson said. “It is essential that RNZ's core services are protected."
"Fully funded public media services need not be unduly expensive however. New Zealand’s first commercial-free digital TV channels, TVNZ 6 & 7 cost only around $17m per year but offered a range of programmes which none of its commercial rivals would have considered.
“None of the programmes on the arts, politics, the law courts, literature, local communities and the media - not to mention an hour of ad-free news and current affairs every evening - survived the National government’s decision to discontinue the funding after 2012.
“This kind of dedicated public service may not be possible under a ‘mixed funding model’ unless the services are very clearly demarcated and the funding for core services carefully ringfenced.”
The Better Public Media Trust believes there would also be a need for a strong public charter, and a governance structure capable of balancing the public service and commercial sides of the operation. This was a big problem under the previous TVNZ Charter which saw the government extracting more in dividends than TVNZ received in Charter subsidies.
“There would also need to be strong governance with significant civic representation on the board, including iwi and community representatives rather than the board being appointed by government. The public media service must be accountable to civil society, not the government of the day - either directly or by proxy.”
Despite these concerns, BPM welcomes debate on the new model and applauds the government for recognising that our public media services need a significant overhaul.