Why all the fuss over the proposed sale and big fat cuts at TV3? PAT PILCHER explains.
Over the last week, the mediascape has been dominated by the news that Mediaworks is to put struggling broadcaster TV3 up for sale. Predictably, there’s been lots of finger pointing and posturing by the media. They seem to find news about other media outlets incredibly fascinating. So, why is TV3 likely to end up going the way of the dodo?
Sadly, it appears that global economic uncertainty means Mediaworks’ US-based owners, Oaktree Capital, are dumping underperforming assets, and that includes TV3.
A few decades back, TV networks were a lucrative business. If they could source and air popular offshore shows and create equally compelling local content, selling advertising at a premium was a doddle.
Since those golden days, things have changed for the worse. The internet arrived, and then Google/Facebook’s online advertising models tore huge amounts of value out of print and broadcast advertising. This saw them struggling to find other revenue streams with players like the New Zealand Herald introducing pay walls to stay afloat.
Speaking of streaming, the rise and rise of streamed content and piracy have also had an impact on broadcast media. We used to have to make do with whatever free to air channels dished up for us. That all changed thanks to the widespread availability of broadband, file sharing and video compression technologies. Now entire seasons of TV shows can get downloaded in the time it takes to watch a single show on broadcast TV.
The arrival of advert-free streaming services operating with economies of scale local broadcasters can only dream about hasn’t helped matters at all. Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services all provide top-shelf HD and UHD premium content that local networks simply can’t afford to purchase.
The presenter of TV3 current affairs show, The Project – Jesse Mulligan – let rip, saying that the channel’s challenges were due to them having to compete against TVNZ. Mulligan argued that because TVNZ is state-owned it can run at a loss. TV3’s American shareholders are far less forgiving.
I’m calling bullshit on this. TV3 (who must have been aware of changes to the broadcasting market), embarked on a series of blunders that are brilliantly described in Metro.
TV3 doubled down on reality shows such as Married At First Sight, all of which earned the dubious distinction of being called “poverty porn”. The new nickname was, however, missed by viewers who’d already left TV3 for Netflix, who were happily binge-watching entire TV series’ without nagging adverts or Mark Richardson’s smug smile.
Fearing that the prevalence of awful reality shows wasn’t enough to drive viewers away from TV3, network execs also pushed opinionated pundits onto viewers. Their often-toxic opinions not only helped to polarise public opinion but also ensured that those who’d voted with their remotes had no intention of coming back to TV3.
The sad thing is that TV3 had some redeeming features. Their evening news crew was top-notch and was often streets ahead of the kids in TVNZ’s newsroom when it came to breaking news. Campbell Live also managed the incredibly difficult task of connecting with viewers and built a hugely loyal following. Despite that, TV3 sacked Campbell (who is now a loose wheel at TVNZ), alienating even more viewers in the process.
Social media has been awash with people lamenting TV3’s coming demise, saying that it’ll be bad for journalism in New Zealand. I think these people might want to take a good look around them and soak up the grievously broken state of New Zealand media.
Our newspapers are now mostly the property of two foreign companies. This cosy duopoly survives by regurgitating news from parent publications and asking a shrinking pool of overworked staff to do more for less. This has seen the quality of reporting plummet. Sky TV has featured in the news for all the wrong reasons as its earnings tanked, and it continues to lose sporting content to Spark’s sports streaming service. Sky’s finances are not helped by their reliance on costly satellite infrastructure and a haphazard mix of streaming offerings that have been poorly marketed. While free-to-air networks have been a little more organised with their online offerings, there simply isn’t much worth watching on them. All the good stuff is now on streaming services. Radio isn’t faring much better, as Spotify, TIDAL and other streaming services continue to make in-roads.
So, here’s the thing. New Zealand’s media needs to be seen as a strategic asset. It keeps Kiwis informed and helps reinforce our cultural identity. It also holds those in power (politicians, corporates) to account. Sadly, our media is failing horribly at this. Partisan reporting and punditry have seen news replaced with opinion. Local content is often culled for cheaper foreign stories, and there’s little to nothing holding our media to account. Now might be a good time to start addressing these issues.
This could consist of laws that enshrine and codify media ethics. The Media Council could be given real powers to level fines at badly behaved media organisations breaching legislated media ethics.
TVNZ and Sky also need to look at what measures they need to put in place. Ideally, they should be developing a point of difference from better-funded streaming players with considerably more scale (and lower overheads). This could see them developing compelling New Zealand content. Such content need not be yet more snore-inducing current affair shows, but local drama and content Kiwis want to watch.