Hard News by Russell Brown

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Labour's RNZ+ plan: largely coherent

Labour announced its media and film industry policy yesterday – and inevitably most of the attention has focused on the proposal to develop RNZ into a full-service public broadcaster, television included, provisionally called RNZ+.

Labour would achieve this by making explicit the distinction between public funding for broadcast-style content and a public broadcaster. RNZ's funding is currently delivered via NZ On Air, even though it is set separately by government. Under Labour, RNZ's funding would be assessed and delivered by a new, independent Public Media Funding Commission, which would oversee both the enhanced RNZ+ and NZ On Air.

This might not have been viable three years ago, but RNZ has been making radio with pictures (and text) for several years now, on minimal budgets – most notably in the case of Checkpoint. CEO Paul Thompson's strategy of expanding the broadcaster's content to multiple platforms is starting to look mature.

The counter-argument is, of course, that the public already owns a television broadcaster – wouldn't it make more sense to orient TVNZ towards public broadcasting goals rather than invent a new one?

I honestly don't think so. TVNZ has been staffed, constructed and managed as a commercial broadcaster which does some public-good activity. Reversing that balance would be more than a culture change – it would mean laying off staff who, through no fault of their own, were hired to do a different job.

I'm also dubious about the economics of, say, turning TV1 into a public broadcast channel and funding that out of the commercial income from TV2 and TVNZ's other revenue-earning businesses. The truth is that most of TVNZ's revenue currently goes into sustaining itself. It declared an annual profit of $1 million recently. Granted, that followed a $12m write-down on its Disney output deal, but even the underlying profit of $13m wouldn't got very far towards supporting a non-commercial channel. Especially after you subtract the forgone commercial revenue from TV1.

By contrast, extending the scope of RNZ, which is already heading in that direction, seems far less disruptive. And it's not as if it needs to own all its facilities. TVNZ already operates a facilities business – Media Take is made at TVNZ Studio 3, as is TV3's The Cafe. And it's a kilometre away from RNZ. There is no impediment there.

RNZ has also learned to produce multi-platform content on the smell of the proverbial oily rag. That seems important, given that Labour's transformation budget is pretty modest – $38m, which would be shared with NZ On Air and the Public Media Funding Commission's other activities, including funding for public-good journalism. It's hard to see RNZ+ producing top-tier scripted drama, at least for a few years.

If Labour does get a chance to implement this policy, it will need to be careful to avoid stepping on NZ On Air, which has already given form to a lot of serious change thinking with the New Zealand Media Fund and already supports journalism – notably in the form of Stuff Circuit. A demarcation dispute would be a poor start.

There's also the option of selling TVNZ and using the proceeds – and Labour's decision not to do so was criticised yesterday by The Spinoff's Duncan Greive. But that, too, is disruptive – and frankly, the market for major media companies ain't that healthy right now. Fairfax, NZME and Mediaworks have all readied themselves for trade sales that didn't come in recent years. Retaining a public ownership of TVNZ for the time being would also offer a degree of influence over the terms of a facilities relationship between the two broadcasters.

In the longer term? Well, TVNZ's land and buildings are valued at $118m. There's always that.

But I must object to this part of Duncan's column:

Lean too far toward online and it could create another TVNZ7 – the non-commercial channel launched in 2008 which had a lot of worthy but poorly-lit content that few watched (though all that did signed a petition afterwards).

As far as we could determine after unravelling the minister's maths, TVNZ 7 had a weekly cumulative audience of 600,000 at the time it was defunded by National – and that audience was growing. By comparison, Three states its reach as "1.19 million 25-54 year olds each week".

Those demographic numbers matter in another way. The task of commercial television is to deliver audiences in the demographics advertisers want to reach. It was people outside those demographics – largely older New Zealanders – who were disenfranchised when TVNZ 7 shut down. That's the argument for having a public broadcaster as well as funding public-good content on other platforms.

There's more in the Labour package, including a welcome revival of the PACE scheme and some fairly vague stuff about the film industry. Overall, I think it coheres in a way that previous attempts have not, and the latterday vitality and viability of RNZ is the key factor there. Labour and anyone else who thinks it's a good start will now have to wait and see whether a new goverment gets a chance to enact it.

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