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Why Better Public Media?

The unprecedented expansion of digital media technologies is surely a defining characteristic of the 21st Century. Over 90% of New Zealand households now have internet connections, with a rapid uptake of ultra-fast broadband services as fibre-optic connections are rolled out. There has also been a rapid uptake of lap-tops, tablets, and smart-phones which give consumers access to an unprecedented range of content and services. Using a single device, we can now keep up with the news, stream on-demand movies, share photographs and videos with friends, do our banking, go shopping, or find a blind date.

With such a digital cornucopia, it is perhaps unsurprising that the government and many in industry regard traditional media such as radio, television, and newspapers as ‘legacy’ platforms that are being rapidly superseded by the digital revolution. Accordingly, the government has decided that its obligations to the New Zealand public are better served by investing in fibre-optic and wireless networks and continued subsidy of local content on a contestable ‘platform-neutral’ basis. Although RNZ and M?ori TV remain publicly funded, there has been a distinct move away from public service media policies; the TVNZ Charter was abolished in 2011, while the commercial-free channels TVNZ 6 and 7 were closed down in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

New digital media platforms are certainly important, but they are still a long way from replacing traditional media. A 2016 NZ On Air audience study found that while online/mobile media were increasing in usage, 86% of New Zealanders still watched linear scheduled television and 78% listened to radio every week. 78% also read newspapers (online and hard copy). An earlier 2014 study commissioned by the BSA and NZ On Air also found that 90% of 6-14 year old children still watched television while 33% listened to radio.  These ‘legacy’ media may be in decline but the large majority of people still use them, and for a significant minority who do not have access to (or choose not to use) online and mobile media, they remain essential services.

Although high-speed broadband and the proliferation of digital media devices have indeed opened up many new services, there are several very good reasons not to assume that concerns about public service principles are now obsolete and relevant only to ‘legacy’ media. For a start, the role of our media system as the ‘fourth estate’ remains critical to any democratic society. Regardless of the platform or reception device, as citizens, we still require our media to inform and educate us.

Media technologies may have changed but our fundamental needs as citizens remain the same. The fact that we can now stream on-demand movies, dramas, sport and cat videos through our lap-tops and smart-phones clearly does not mean we no longer need high quality news and current affairs, informative documentaries, quality children’s programming and relevant local content.  If you can afford to pay, subscriber services like Netflix allow us binge-watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Some of this overseas content is doubtless quality entertainment – but there’s precious little in the way of information and educational material relating to New Zealand.

Meanwhile, our domestic media are struggling to survive. Free-to-air television and radio advertising has declined as advertisers have shifted their attention to online media, while our print news media have been pushed into crisis as social media have co-opted not only their online readers but their advertising revenues. This has resulted in round after round of newsroom budget cuts and redundancies, an increased drive for populist content to attract viewers and online traffic, and increasing intolerance for any sort of cost where cheaper alternatives are available.

Consider what has happened to television current affairs: TVNZ abandoned Close-Up in favour of the magazine chat-show format of Seven Sharp, while TV3 canned Campbell Live in favour of 3D, only to discontinue that in favour of The Project. Meanwhile, the more in-depth current affairs content like Q&A and the Nation have been pushed into peripheral slots on weekend mornings where they can’t harm prime time ratings and ad revenue.

In regard to radio, RNZ remains the core public service operator and despite its ongoing budget deficits, has grown its audience and continued to produce quality New Zealand news and current affairs. However, RNZ’s efforts to expand its services online have required budget cuts in other areas which have not been off-set by the recent (very modest) increase in its funding. Although RNZ is committed to fulfilling its charter, it has been subject to a similar pattern of newsroom restructuring and redundancies seen in other news media.

New digital media platforms and services are having a profound and irreversible impact on our media environment, and this is forcing the so-called ‘legacy’ media – including our public service providers – to adapt their operations to survive. Of course, these new media offer many potential benefits, but it would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that, left to the free market, they will somehow provide all New Zealanders with everything we need from our media as citizens.

Better Public Media recognises the continuing value of our legacy media and supports the continuation and expansion of non-commercial public radio and television services. And we support the critical role new digital media can play in meeting the needs of all New Zealanders. To that end, BPM also supports regulatory and funding arrangements to support public service functions (such as in-depth investigative journalism) on other platforms.

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