Is the RNZ/TVNZ merger really the solution?

The merging of TVNZ and Radio New Zealand might make sense to accountants, writes PAT PILCHER, but have they really thought it through?

There’s a tonne of hype in the media surrounding the merger of TVNZ and RNZ into a new state broadcasting entity. Within the NZ mediascape, it’s a huge deal. But what lies behind this overhyped move? Is it really going to be a bigger and better solution as Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi would have us all believe?

 

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We at Witchdoctor have reservations about the whole deal. We think that while the move might make sense from an accountancy perspective, New Zealanders are likely to be the real losers if and when it goes ahead. Here’s why.

One of the big rationales behind the move is creating a single entity that is better positioned to deliver content across many different digital platforms. Superficially, there is little to fault in this logic. A combined RNZ and TVNZ could in theory become a stronger streaming and podcasting entity, but the devil is in the detail.

While RNZ/TVNZ execs and the Minister are clearly excited about the prospect of a stronger digital presence, they’ve forgotten a key point. What’s going to go over these platforms? A platform is only ever going to be as good as the content it delivers to its audience, and so far, we’ve seen and heard sweet fanny adam on just what this will look/sound like. Do we need even more current affairs (don’t we already have far too much?), or will it be lots of crappy but cheap to make reality TV shows (we have far too many of those too)? Until there is more clarity around what sort of content we’re likely to get from this shiny new entity, any talk of a stronger digital presence is little more than an exercise in hype demonstrating a lack of substance.

That we will have a single broadcaster is one thing, but what about taking a long hard look at how NZ content is funded? NZ On Air is a notoriously inefficient entity. The large-scale lack of any NZ dramas aside from the rubbish regularly delivered by Shortland Street speaks volumes about the way locally made TV/radio content gets funded and the need for an overhaul. A new combined TV and radio entity probably isn’t the answer.

This also raises the spectre of the long-term viability of a combined state broadcasting entity. At the moment, RNZ survives off state-provided funding while TVNZ is more commercially oriented. Clearly, a more commercially focused entity will favour TVNZ at the expense of RNZ, and there are questions that need to be asked about the longer-term outlook for a combined entity.

In the unlikely event of National forming the next government, who’s to say that the current level of funding to both broadcasters will continue? Differing ideologies and a penchant for playing political ping-pong could see the new entity dismantled almost as fast as it was put together. This would be a huge waste of even more scarce taxpayer dollars that could’ve been used to fund hospitals and schools.

While the talking heads at Parliament, TVNZ and RNZ are all saying that the joint entity will take what is best from both TVNZ and RNZ, making it even better, guess what? We have doubts here too.

RNZ is one of NZ’s better media outlets. It has In-depth and balanced reporting with knowledgeable non-partisan hosts who actually research their topics. TVNZ’s in-house material, meanwhile, consists mostly of kids dressed as adults reporting on current affairs and low-rent reality shows that are clearly made to a (cut) price.

Typically, after a corporate merger/takeover, the dominant corporate culture subsumes the weaker entity. In the context of TVNZ and RNZ’s proposed merger, the stronger entity is likely to be TVNZ. This is a real shame as much of what was good at RNZ could end up being sucked into a TVNZ-centric entity where it is either subverted into something less than desirable or completely discarded.

In other words, instead of the public getting the best of both broadcasters, we could end up with the worst as RNZ’s output is increasingly marginalised.

The big question to us is this: Why is the merger even happening? It reeks of deck chairs being shifted around on the titanic as it sinks beneath the waves. The merging of RNZ and TVNZ may make accountants happy, but no one has talked about how much a merger will cost taxpayers and if the money could be better spent elsewhere. It might even save taxpayers some money over the short term. However, the reality is that when good journalism is gone, it is gone.

Given the highly partisan and frankly dire state of much of the private broadcast media in NZ, the loss of what is good from both TVNZ and RNZ will be a body blow to New Zealand’s democracy. RNZ and TVNZ have informed public debate and helped keep the wheels running smoothly for a very long time. It’d be a huge shame if this was to come to an end.

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