Home > Regular Columns > Talking Heads: CBB, 27 October 2015

Talking Heads: CBB, 27 October 2015

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Change is on the Air

The government has just finished taking submissions for the digital convergence review, which is a huge HUGE undertaking. In amongst the detail, there are a few questions that relate to Screen NZ types – NZ On Air, the BSA and the future funding of our TV industry.

It’s been a long time coming. In 2008 such a review was already underway, but the newly anointed Broadcasting Minister Jonathan “Maestro” Coleman nixed the review right before nixing the TVNZ Charter, and TVNZ 7. Well, convergence stops for no government and seven years later the need to unify laws for media on the internet, TV, radio and apps is long overdue.

But first let’s clear up a myth or two. Video didn’t kill the radio star, and the internet isn’t going to kill TV, or radio, or (out on a limb here) even newspapers. As recently as last year NZ On Air research showed that 83% of Kiwis watch normal, free-to-air telly every day and those numbers are not declining. It may be time-shifted, on-demand or while eating fish’n’chips, but still we’re mainly watching the box. If anything the trend is to watch TV and use another device at the same time. God knows most prime-time TV has become so dumbed-down you can write a thesis, play scrabble and work out how to fix your iPhone after the latest update – all while watching the 6pm news.

So, far from replacing traditional TV, the new devices are adding to it. Radio is the same, evolving not dying. Newspaper and magazine publishing is also morphing. Yes, it’s becoming a lot harder to fund proper journalism and, yes most newspapers are dumbing down, but media that is words and pictures based on real events, and roughly adhering to the idea of journalism, will survive. Creating quality journalism is another discussion but suffice it to say the solution is a government subsidy. As much as everyone might try to deny it, government support IS THE ONLY WAY we will ever guarantee quality journalism for the long term. It’s already happening overseas.

So, what will come out of the government convergence review? Naturally, everything is up for grabs. NZ on Air could start funding videos on Stuff website, TV channels may be allowed to screen adverts on Sunday mornings, NZ On Air may be changed to only fund commercial programmes, TV channels might be allowed to regulate themselves and the BSA could be disbanded. If any of this sounds like good news to you, then you’re likely to already be part of the steering committee (aka Cabinet).

And just so you know, the rest of us are a bit concerned. NZ On Air is horribly under-funded and can’t afford to fund journalism en masse, Sunday mornings are the last bastion of non-commercial telly; the TV channels are as trustworthy as a Patricevic so not to be relied on to police themselves, and the BSA is the ONLY media regulator taken seriously which explains why it is so unpopular within its industry – that’s how it should be.

Naturally the Coalition for Better Broadcasting wrote a long and extraordinarily thorough submission to the convergence review. You’ll be pleased to know it is a little more formal and reasoned than this column, and it’s available on our website here.

The main problems we identified were:

  1. There is an assumption that public service media doesn’t matter. The review sees convergence purely in commercial terms with a focus on helping businesses navigate it. The civic and cultural aspects of media convergence are virtually lost. Also we were given two months to make submissions while business groups have been invited to discussion with government since December last year.
  2. In this review, content is a pauper. NZ needs diverse, high-quality content but our TV market does not automatically supply it. Serious news and current affairs need support. And in the long term, New Zealand content is in great danger of being swamped by the flood of international content.
  3. For the next decade it is not acceptable to assume that ‘everything is online’ or that online is an adequate platform for public service content. The digital divide genuinely exists with many of NZ’s poor or rural communities without internet. They as much as any of us, need informative, educational and enlightening media.
  4. Commercial growth in digital media is good but it shouldn’t hamper the non-commercial sector, which has benefits for all NZers. Lop-sided growth in commercial media only can be avoided with a contribution to address the market failures that these commercial activities inevitably entail. Therefore we support a small levy across the entire sector to support growth and innovation of public service media.
  5. It’s important that content standards and classifications apply across all platforms and enforceable by law. Industry bodies may want ‘voluntary codes’ because they’re less strict and the penalties are softer; but audiences and the subjects of media, deserve accountability. A two-tier system allows for self-regulation backed up by a statutory appeals system that keeps it honest.

That’s really just the tip of our iceberg-sized submission but you get the idea.

The review now goes back into the murky depths whence it came, where one-eyed politicians, gormless bureaucrats, narcissistic lords of industry and ideological market forces gather and ‘dance’. Without being too cynical I look forward to seeing what shade of brown it comes out as.

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