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The government’s big announcement delivers little

Better Public Media was pleased to hear the assurances from the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media that the government remains committed to strengthening public media. However, given the widespread anticipation of the announcement, there was very little new information revealed today.

There are several positives and negatives which we might take from Minister Faafoi’s remarks.

On the positive side, the new public media entity envisaged will not entail commercial funding of the platforms which are currently non-commercial. Crucially, this appears to confirm that RNZ’s services and TVNZ’s HeiHei service will remain ad-free which is essential to ensure that programming decisions are insulated from the pressure to optimise ratings and revenue.

The suggestion that the entire entity would be non-profit and guided by a robust public service Charter is also significant, as is the confirmation that NZ On Air’s role in providing contestable funding for local content will be maintained.

However, the Minister’s announcement leaves many critical questions unaddressed and defers to the ‘business case’ to answer them. This represents yet another delay, on top of years of reviews and advisory groups. Once completed in 6 months, Cabinet will again be given the chance to decide its media policy. By which time the 2020 election will be imminent and any recommendations could be revised or completely discarded.

It seems that Cabinet continually defers the decision to commit adequate money to New Zealand’s public media.

Also missing from the announcement was any information about the scope of the business case. There are 6 critical considerations here-

a. The vision is to have a single Charter governing the entire public media entity but how will the different operational cultures of RNZ and TVNZ be aligned? The former is a long-standing public service provider, while the latter is completely commercial- the everyday practices of content commissioning and scheduling are informed by different motivations and priorities.

b. How will the hybrid model of Crown + commercial funding work? The previous attempt to bolt a public service Charter onto a commercial TVNZ ended in confusion and recriminations because the public funding never matched the public service expectations. The Minister appears to think the structural issues need to be addressed before the funding models are addressed- but the funding arrangements significantly affect what kind of institutional structure is feasible. If, for example, it is desirable to turn TV One wholly or partially non-commercial then this could imply a cost of anywhere between $50m to $150m. Leaving consideration of the potential funding mechanisms until after the preferred structure is determined is likely to constrain the possibilities deemed realistic.

c. Meanwhile, if the television services are to receive public subsidies as well as commercial revenue then how will the government ensure that this public funding does not distort the market by enabling the new entity to compete more aggressively for advertising? There are ways to mitigate this (e.g. commercial-free slots in the schedule or making the publicly-funded programmes ineligible to carry advertising) but this needs careful consideration given the precarious state of the commercial broadcast sector.

d. The focus on the new public service media operation is obviously important but there are wider issues in the media ecology which also need attention. The impact of digital intermediaries on the advertising market is obviously crucial (BPM has long argued for a levy which could then fund public journalism) but so too are the regulatory frameworks which in many cases remain 2 if not 3 decades out of date. Addressing the structural problems within the media ecology must have public service media at the centre but the overall structure of market also needs attention.

e. With the exception of some leaked reports about the government’s thinking, the Minister has been keeping very tight control over the reports upon which the current policy direction has been based. A cabinet paper is due to be released, but there is a need to be more transparent about the advice and the evidence informing current policy thinking. It appears that much of the advice thus far has stemmed from a relatively narrow range of industry-based experts and senior executives from within the public sector. There is therefore need for a stronger public voice and the representation of civic interests as these significant policy deliberations progress. Public media policy needs to be accountable to the public.

f. There are indications that the evaluation of the crucial business case will be delegated to a major consultancy and accounting firm. While a PWC or KPMG is doubtless capable of crunching the commercial numbers, they may not be best-placed to decide how the new entity’s public service function can be integrated with a commercial operation, without the mission becoming muddled. These deliberations demand consultation of a range of civic voices and the public, as well as the industry voices with their own institutional interests in the outcomes.

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