John Drinnan 's Opinion

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Media: New men at top signal RNZ shake-up

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Raconteur and PR man Richard Griffin will be a familiar face for Radio New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell
Raconteur and PR man Richard Griffin will be a familiar face for Radio New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Government has appointed the political raconteur and public relations man Richard Griffin as chairman of the Radio New Zealand board of governors.

Former private radio entrepreneur Josh Easby will be his deputy. Both men were only appointed to the board in May last year and the swift promotion - forecast by this column - signals a shake-up at Radio New Zealand.

Political impatience with RNZ's resisting change coincides with concern about public broadcasting surviving under National.

Griffin, who has been deputy since July, replaces chairwoman Christine Grice, whose term has ended.

Grice - a lawyer who has a very good professional rapport with chief executive Peter Cavanagh - clashed with Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman and questioned a Government budget freeze.

Government criticism of Grice led to a grassroots campaign to "Save Radio New Zealand" that was subsequently hijacked by Labour.

At the end of last year RNZ had made progress improving its relationship with the Government, offering cost-cutting that did not reduce the service to listeners and was deemed acceptable to ministers.

The board of governors headed by Griffin is stuck in the middle. On one side it is answerable to a Government that includes some ministers who are actively antagonistic to RNZ.

On the other side is a valuable institution imbued with integrity whose strategy has been to avoid change.

Griffin is well known in political and media circles with close friends including Bill Ralston, Ian Fraser, Mark Sainsbury and Paul Holmes. So he will be the familiar face for an organisation that has liked to keep its face pointed at the ground.

Easby is a different kettle of fish.

Like Griffin he is a former journalist and was one of the Auckland Star reporters involved in the Mr Asia investigation.

Easby joined Brierley Investments in a management role and at one time led a network of private radio stations.

Other appointees are Sheena Henderson, a Christchurch-based consultant specialising in branding, marketing and corporate advisory work, and Deborah Taylor, a self-employed business consultant from Queenstown. Former National Cabinet minister Paul East had his term extended.

BARR NONE

I reported last week that Radio New Zealand was looking at selling news services to other organisations, and mentioned MediaWorks radio as a target.

RNZ spokesman John Barr acknowledged the overall approach of selling services but stressed that he had not mentioned MediaWorks. I'm happy to point that out.

WHAT IF?

How much longer will it be until Rick Ellis steps down as chief executive of Television New Zealand?

In six years he has made a lot of progress turning the state broadcaster into a multimedia company, laying off staff while maintaining audience share and manoeuvring TVNZ through an advertising slump.

He took on the ad agencies and won, reducing commissions. But all eras come to an end, and inevitably with TVNZ chairman Sir John Anderson extending his term, there will be questions about who will be running the show.

Sir John has a hands-off approach to day-to-day management and - beyond the odd difference of opinion - he and Ellis have seemed joined at the hip.

The two men have won kudos for restoring stability to a company that had been in crisis under political interference and under Ellis' predecessor Ian Fraser, and Sir John's, Craig Boyce.

The focus nowadays is wholly on profit and nothing else - though the profits so far have not been stratospheric.

Jobs have been cut, but there has been little of the notorious middle management padding at TVNZ.

New media such as tvnzondemand and tvnz.co.nz have been successful in terms of uptake and, TVNZ argues, commercially successful. But TVNZ accounts are so opaque that the public has no way of knowing how much their development has eaten into profits.

The $14.8 million write-off of TVNZ's investment in the advanced new media device TiVo - free TV's version of MySky - has been a costly venture.

The Government will be comfortable with progress ending the last vestiges of public service broadcasting.

But among programme makers and the wider industry there is concern TVNZ has lost not just its soul as a public service broadcaster, but any interest in television beyond bringing in ad dollars.

LIKELY LADS

Who is around now who could replace Ellis if he did leave? Three names come up in conversation.

* The first - and least likely - is Shaun Brown, a former head of Television One who recently retired as chief executive of the Australian public service broadcaster SBS.

At heart Brown is a commercial broadcaster, has close ties and still spends part of his time here. But after the ugliness when he was pushed out of his job by Labour in 2005, it's unlikely he would return.

* Up until last year, MediaWorks TV chief executive Jason Paris was Ellis' right-hand man when he was head of marketing and new business at TVNZ.

Paris was seen as the heir apparent. He is young, ambitious and confident. But these are still early days dealing with big issues at MediaWorks. He has yet to prove himself, so he may not be taking on such a significant role but don't rule him out.

* Brent Impey has emerged from a long gardening leave after his departure from MediaWorks. He is highly commercial. But would he want to venture into such a large project at his age, and has he other fish to fry in the media sector?

WHO KILLED TVNZ7?

Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman told Parliament the demise of TVNZ7 was Labour's fault for leaving no clear blueprint for its ongoing funding.

It is true Labour's oversight of broadcasting was shambolic. But unfortunately the Nats are no better - and ultimately their approach has the effect of favouring pay television over free-to-air channels such as TVNZ7.

And as the radio frequency deal shows - it involves murky backroom deals that are not fully explained to the public.

There was an expectation for funding to continue for TVNZ7 after taxpayer money runs out next year - but it got quashed under National's queer interpretation of market forces combined with nudging from the Government

The obvious source for at least some revenue on a channel like TVNZ7 would require TVNZ to offer content and Sky to pay for it - a "must carry, must pay" arrangement.

Labour had promised rules - common in overseas broadcast markets - to ensure diversity. The Labour plan was to be included in a review of broadcasting regulations and provide some protection for TVNZ.

But after the election the review - and the concept of any regulation for Sky TV - was ruled out of bounds.

In subsequent meetings between broadcasters called by Coleman, Sky got access to rebroadcast TVNZ6 and TVNZ7 for free.

Prime TV was given access to Freeview for a reduced rate. The full details of these behind-the-scenes arrangements between two dominant broadcasters are confidential.

How independent was the Government in this decision? Coleman played down his role in the agreement between TVNZ and Sky over TVNZ7, saying: "While I was always keen for TVNZ7 to reach as wide an audience as possible, TVNZ informed me of its decision after it had been taken."

What role did Coleman play in resolving a dispute between Sky TV and Freeview over Prime TV being broadcast on Freeview?

"I brokered a meeting between Sky and Freeview to help both parties resolve the dispute amongst themselves." Coleman said.

By ruling out "must carry, must pay legislation" hasn't the Government removed a potential source of funding for TVNZ7?

"We've been upfront in our approach to regulation in broadcasting and 'must carry, must pay' does not fit with that approach."

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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