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High Time the Government Announced Public Media Blueprint

Better Public Media cautiously welcomes the news that Cabinet has agreed in principle to back the continued planning for a new public service media entity encompassing RNZ and TVNZ.

What is missing so far is greater public input to the decision-making process.

The following can be attributed to Peter Thompson – Chair of Better Public Media Trust and Associate Professor in Media and Communication at Victoria University of Wellington.

This week’s report from RNZ suggests that Cabinet is rightly concerned to ensure that public service principles are not overshadowed by commercial imperatives, and this is crucial if the new entity is to combine RNZ’s public service with the commercial operations of TVNZ.

However, the continuing lack of transparency over the precise shape and structure of the proposed new entity remains a concern, as does the question over how any public funding arrangements can be structured to ensure that public service principles are insulated from commercial pressure.

Once a media operator starts factoring ratings and revenue into every commissioning and scheduling decision, the incentive to provide programming that appeals primarily to minorities or takes a commercial risk is inevitably diluted. RNZ therefore needs to remain non-commercial.

The key questions here are whether, and how far TVNZ’s operations might be de-commercialised. Removing the advertising from TV One would cost at least $150m annually. It is more likely that the government envisages some sort of partial de-commercialisation of one or both channels. This raises other complexities.

New Zealand’s previous experiment with a hybrid funding model was the much-maligned TVNZ Charter. Between 2003-2008, the Charter funding provided $15m per year. But at less than 5% of TVNZ’s operational revenues (before dividends) this was never going to be sufficient to off-set the commercial pressures.

The lesson that must be taken from this is that while a Charter can provide an important statement of direction, public funding needs to be proportional to public service expectations. Exactly how much is needed to deliver the intended outcomes, and the possible mechanisms for sourcing and delivering the funding, need to be considered when Cabinet review the business plan.

Moreover, if there is to be hybrid funding of the new entity, the commercial broadcasting sector will raise questions over whether publicly-funded programming is competing unfairly for audiences and ad-revenue, thus distorting the market. There are different ways of mitigating against this which need to be debated, for example;

a. Making any directly-funded public channel ineligible for NZ On Air’s contestable funding (this was the arrangement for the ill-fated TVNZ6 and TVNZ7).
b. Restricting advertising during the schedule when any directly-funded programme is broadcast.
c. Making publicly-funded content available to other media (as with RNZ’s current content-sharing model).

It is positive that the government has recognised that public service media remains a vital component of the digital media ecology, but it is high time the government announced its blueprint for the new public media entity, and sought public feedback to ensure the best outcome and informed debate before the 2020 election.


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