TVNZ and RNZ merger doubts

There is a strong feeling that merging TVNZ and RNZ into a new state media entity is going to proceed despite counter-arguments.

The plan, backed by Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi, emerged before the lockdown. Consultants PwC began to get ready to prepare a business case, called Strengthening Public Media.

After Covid delays, urgency has been given to the project.

The Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Group was set up last week to develop a charter for the new organisation and oversee and scrutinise a business case being prepared, this time by consultants Deloitte. The group includes seven people with different media experience plus former New Zealand First Cabinet minister Tracey Martin as chairwoman.

Mr Faafoi wants the report by the middle of the year, and a new structure in place by 2023.

The media landscape change would be massive, and the project already has obvious momentum. But observers still have little idea what the new organisation might look like and how it might work.

The very names Strengthening Public Media and Strong Public Media Business Case imply what would seem a worthwhile goal.

Implicit, however, is the implication RNZ and TVNZ are not strong public media.

Yet, TVNZ has swamped its opposition on broadcast television and carved out a strong streaming presence. Against predictions, its traditional 6pm news continues to draw large audiences.

RNZ radio outperforms commercial stations and its podcasts and streaming have been successful.

RNZ has also aligned with media in story-sharing arrangements. That has spread its media presence and brand across other news outlets.

Both TVNZ and RNZ are strong in public interest news. They both regularly reveal matters that matter.

TVNZ works through commercial means (advertisements), while RNZ is funded by taxpayers.

The new entity would be a mix of both "Crown and non-Crown" funding.

Supposedly, the charter would allow for this coexistence. Hopefully, it would work better than the 2003 TVNZ public charter that lapsed, or the non-advertising channels 6 and 7 from 2007. They failed abysmally.

Independence from Government and political interference would be enshrined. But that can be a fine line, as witnessed recently for the ABC in Australia and the BBC.

There are always pressures, all be they are sometimes subtle. Similarly, commercial influences can lurk.

This is an imperative for media diversity. The need for competition and diversity of news and advertising underpinned the Commerce Commission rejection of the merger of Stuff and NZME (New Zealand Herald and radio stations).

Likewise, diversity in media is enhanced when two (rather than one) strong state-owned outlets with different focuses are doing their thing.

TVNZ and RNZ have different funding, cultures and outlooks, and that is complementary and positive.

Sensibly, the new entity would not just be a pulling together of what each does now. In such a revolution, starting afresh would be essential.

Supposedly, the organisation would be better equipped for the changing and challenging future and new audiences and new audience requirements.

Really? Both TVNZ and RNZ have been progressive and innovative while not leaving behind their current huge audiences.

They will be in danger of making Stuff’s stuff-up when it destroyed much of its loyal and productive newspaper audience well before its time.

The new entity could well lose its bird in the hand for the sake of two in the bush.

Mrs Martin’s appointment appears welcome because she comes without media baggage and with a no-nonsense common-sense reputation.

It will be interesting to see what she and the group make of how the new entity is to "collaborate with and complement the work of private media".

The one area where TVNZ and RNZ lag well behind the New Zealand Herald, Stuff and, regionally, the Otago Daily Times is as go-to internet sites for news.

Would a combined news site attempt to muscle its way towards the top in this space? How would that help private media which is always doing its job without the many millions of state support?

It is the nature of politicians to want to make their mark and leave a legacy. Top executives can seek to do likewise, trying to fix radically what is not broken rather than adapting and evolving.

Perhaps the grand merger plan cannot be dismissed out of hand. But there are also compelling arguments for eschewing this path.


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