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What do we mean by ‘public media’?

In the digital media environment, we seem to have access to an endless amount of media content, increasingly available on-demand through whatever device we choose. On one level, it’s certainly true that, as consumers, we have more media choices than ever before. However, amidst that choice there are many forms of media content that are vital to us as citizens but which an increasingly competitive commercial media sector doesn’t do enough to provide.

Local content is one example. Given that we’re a small predominantly English-speaking country, it works out a lot cheaper to import ready-made content from overseas than it is to produce it locally. An hour of good quality local drama might cost $800,000 an hour here in New Zealand. But a commercial broadcaster could acquire the rights to good British or American dramas for maybe 10% of that cost. If the imported drama attracted the same audience as the local one, it wouldn’t make commercial sense to pay the extra money for the local version. With the support of NZ On Air and Te M?ngai Paho, some decent local and te reo content does get made (although much of this is subject to commercial scheduling pressures). But left to the market, very little would survive.

Another example is news and current affairs. If you look at prime time television, the pressure to maximise ratings and advertising revenue at every slot in the schedule means that only the most popular programmes will get commissioned and scheduled. This is why current affairs now consists of Seven Sharp and The Project on TVNZ1 and Three. More serious in-depth discussion like Q&A, The Hui or The Nation have been pushed out to weekend mornings where their lower ratings don’t harm the bottom line – and that’s even with NZ On Air funding!

Meanwhile, Three dumped Campbell Live completely and then dumped its replacement, Story, because they weren’t making enough money.

It’s tempting to blame the commercial media for these decisions, but we also have to recognise that collectively, our individual choices as media consumers are what give the media the indicators of consumer demand that ultimately drive their content decisions. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying popular content – if you want to binge-watch Hollywood movies, Game of Thrones on Netflix or watch sports 24/7 on Sky, go for it! But of course, not everyone can afford subscription services, and even those who can will be disappointed if they are expecting a full range of New Zealand programmes through these services.

Some people will argue that they don’t much care for current affairs in prime time. That’s certainly the message that TVNZ and Mediaworks have received from the audience ratings. But few would disagree that when there are important issues unfolding which affect our lives, such as elections, wars, climate change, and earthquakes, we still need a robust and reliable fourth estate to tell us what’s going on, hold those in power to account, and ensure that we understand the world around us.

So even if we’re spoiled for choice as consumers, as citizens we still need high quality content that reflects New Zealand cultures and provides us with the information to participate in civic life. And that means we still need media services that provide content based not only on what is popular among the dominant demographics, but on what will serve a diverse range of audience needs – including children, minority interests, and the regions; content that informs and educates as well as entertains us. We might enjoy sharing our opinions on social media and receiving suggestions for content that align with our consumption patterns and pander to what we have ‘liked’. But we also need content that expands our imagination and challenges our assumptions with different perspectives on life.

In the digital era, public service broadcasting might sound paternalistic and anachronistic. However, our call for better public media doesn’t mean forcing the majority to subsidise the niche interests of minorities or letting ivory tower academics tell us what’s good or bad for us. But it does mean providing regulations, funding and other incentives to make sure we don’t end up with a limited choice of only what the commercial media decide is most profitable.

Public media principles:

  • Serving everybody’s interests as citizens not only as consumers
  • High quality content across a full range of genres (including local productions) that inform, educate and entertain us
  • Universal accessibility across different platforms and free to all New Zealanders
  • Caters to the interests of minorities as well as the majority, including M?ori, regions, and young people
  • Independent of government and insulated from commercial pressures
  • Robust fourth estate role to hold those in power to account

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