The state-owned radio broadcaster will keep its independence and get a cash injection after the Government scrapped the proposal to merge it with TVNZ.
Normal transmission has resumed for the country’s media industry. RNZ and TVNZ will remain as separate entities and the bogeyman of a monolithic public media entity has been slain.
In reality, it has died a slow and rather agonising death. Attempts by successive ministers to explain the rationale for a new entity fell flat and as the costs mounted so did the opposition to this expensive answer to a problem that had never been properly explained.
Opinion polls showed little public support for merging two very culturally different organisations.
The working groups kept meeting and the consultants kept getting paid, but the cost-of-living crisis was steadily whittling away the political resolve.
Executives at TVNZ may publicly have claimed to be in favour of the merger but privately many thought it would be a disaster. An internal poll of TVNZ staff, taken while the merger plan was still alive, showed that 50 percent intended to leave within 2 years.
RNZ staff worried about being swallowed by an Auckland-based powerhouse that ever since the John Key government scrapped its charter has kept a laser-like focus on its commercial success.
National, for its part, stepped up the pressure on the Government when it stopped equivocating and announced it would reverse the merger if it led the next government.
Within minutes of the Prime Minister’s announcement the merger plan was dropped, privately owned media companies praised the decision.
MediaWorks’ chief executive Cam Wallace put it bluntly. “It’s a shame that so much has been spent on this proposal at a time when the industry as a whole in New Zealand is dealing with decreasing advertising revenues in the face of a likely recession.
“The proposed merger has created a degree of uncertainty for staff at both entities and in the wider industry and we’re pleased that everyone can now concentrate on delivering for New Zealanders.
“Both public and commercial media play important roles in creating a thriving, sustainable sector.”
Commercial operations like MediaWorks, Stuff and NZME (owner of the NZ Herald and Newstalk ZB) won’t now face the power of combined RNZ/TVNZ online news operation, but they will face increased competition from a resurgent RNZ.
Hipkins indicated at the media conference that RNZ would receive an increase in funding of between $5 and $12 million a year. If it is the higher figure, [and at another point, he did nominate $10m as the number] that’s a substantial increase in its budget.
The money is bound to come with some strings attached, like expectations around more content for under-served audiences, but it will still provide a significant boost to a broadcaster that does a lot with a little.
In a carefully judged statement, RNZ CEO Paul Thompson said the extra funding would be used to modernise the broadcaster’s systems and promised to work closely with the wider industry.
“RNZ’s mandate remains incredibly important – a fact recognised by nearly everyone involved in a debate around ANZPM [the working name given to the proposed new entity].
“It is also good that there is broad political acceptance for the need to properly fund RNZ…RNZ provides an essential service that needs investment to address legacy infrastructure issues but also to reach more diverse audiences which aren’t well served by what we do now. Our ability to collaborate with others means we are very well positioned to provide a resilient and comprehensive media service to connect and inform New Zealanders while also supporting the wider sector.”
The executives at the Government’s media funding agency, New Zealand on Air will also be celebrating the demise of ANZPM, or at least feeling some relief.
NZOA was set to lose the $40 million a year that it has been awarding to producers who make programmes for TVNZ. This money was going to go straight to ANZPM and not be part of a contestable process.
Losing control of the money would have meant NZOA having to scale down its operations and undoubtedly become a less relevant player in the media landscape. Hipkins has also signalled NZOA will get a funding boost – perhaps to appease the supporters of the merger who were hoping for more documentaries and children’s programming.
If there is a loser from the ‘refocusing’ it could be TVNZ. When asked by Newsroom if he might impose a charter on TVNZ to force a more public interest approach from the television broadcaster, the Prime Minister didn’t rule it out.
Hipkins said there were some things that could be achieved through the Government’s letter of expectation to TVNZ “but I wouldn’t discount a charter.”
Supporters of the merger hoping for a less commercial approach from TVNZ will hardly be encouraged by its sales director firing out an enthusiastic email to advertisers shortly after Hipkins’ announcement.
“We voiced our support of ANZPM as we saw the opportunities it presented for public media in New Zealand. However, we’re pleased to now have clarity from the Government and a clear path forward for TVNZ. Our team are feeling energised and focused as we dive into 2023.
“Our intention is to think bigger and move faster with our pathway to a full digital media future, and you’ll hear more updates from us on this in the coming months.
“There is so much on TVNZ’s horizon that I know will enhance our ability to tell authentic and compelling brand stories. We’ve got a pipeline of exciting innovations to come, including the launch of our customer data platform early this year. From July, we’re so excited to be expanding our breadth of sports content with free cricket coverage on our channels and TVNZ+. This is just the start. As a valued partner, I want to thank you for your continued support.”
The scrapping of the merger will also leave traces of egg on the face of Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson. He failed in attempts to sell the merger to a wide audience, and it is possible his rambunctious and flailing interview with TVNZ’s Jack Tame was the point where the merger’s prospects terminally headed south.
Mark Jennings – co-editor of Newsroom.
This story was originally published on RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.