John Drinnan: Tremors from over the Tasman

Long-awaited Australian law reform could shake up New Zealand media, too.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is making a big push to revamp media law. Photo / Getty Images
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is making a big push to revamp media law. Photo / Getty Images

A shakeup of Australian Government rules for the media sector could affect New Zealand's own deregulated and highly-concentrated media industry.

New Zealand media already face big, disruptive changes and new Aussie regulations might complicate things on this side of the Tasman.

Even before the change begins, two New Zealand media players - APN's New Zealand division NZME, publisher of the Herald, and MediaWorks - have been looking at sharemarket floats.

A shakeup has been pondered by successive Australian governments and there are still hurdles to jump in winning cross-party support for any change. But when former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull became PM in September, he made it clear this would be a big push.

Proposals for change are to be spelled out in the first half of this year.

The question is how the New Zealand media landscape - with its close ownership links to Australia - will be affected?

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has pointed to two specific areas involving changes to rules that restrict ownership.

The "reach rule" stops TV networks from buying regional affiliates if that means they will then reach more than three-quarter of the Australian population.

The "two-thirds rule" stops a media company from owning print, television and radio networks in one market.

Potential changes appear to be focused on the reach rule affecting regional markets rather than the two-thirds rule.

The Australian proposals highlight the very different approaches to media regulation in the two countries.

Australia has maintained a complex industry dominated by local interests. That's a far cry from the New Zealand experience.

But media in both countries are under the cosh these days, thanks to disruptive technologies and the growth of global players.

Back in 1989, New Zealand adopted Roger Douglas' laissez faire ideas for the broadcasting industry. In my view, that has led to a highly flexible industry, able to adapt swiftly to change.

Deregulation exaggerated this country's highly concentrated market, with a duopoly in most sectors (though not in pay TV), largely controlled by Australian interests.

The upshot is that changes to media across the Tasman may well decide the landscape for New Zealand media.

On Wednesday, Fifield announced that he was seeking cross-party support "as soon as possible" - in the first half of the year.

"The media laws that we currently have are gradually being rendered redundant by both technology and the choice that offers consumers," said Fifield.

Rupert Murdoch's take on the final outcome will be interesting. In March last year, Murdoch's News Corp took a 14.9 per cent stake in APN News and Media, whose New Zealand arm, NZME, has brought together its print, online and radio interests.

News Corp's stake is the maximum allowed under the current rules and in Australia there has been speculation that the purchase was partly a strategic move ahead of a possible law change.

Mining social media

Jenny-May Clarkson. Photo / Carolyn Sylvester
Jenny-May Clarkson. Photo / Carolyn Sylvester

The rise of digital media and the demand for simple stories has led to a proliferation of items about media, often based on online comments. Twitter and Facebook have become instantly available as vox pops to assess public opinion.

February is looming and news junkies will be hoping the "silly season" stories become less prominent. But I wonder if highly clickable stories about celebrity outrages and "inappropriate" opinions will return to their old place in the news hierarchy.

Indeed, experts such as Canterbury University media lecturer Donald Matheson note that on a global level, Twitter conversations have become an established format online.

Internationally, there is a thirst for these stories, as I found out this week. My own Twitter profile was mentioned in the world's most successful digital publication, the Mail Online.

Various media had written items suggesting that celebrity musician Lorde had broken up with her longtime boyfriend. Another item suggested that the Prime Minister's son Max Key - who has become celebrity news fodder - had broken up with his girlfriend.

How, I wondered to another Twitter user, would the media cover the two getting together?

I should have noticed that Lorde's famously protective mum was in on the discussion. She took umbrage at the conversation, taking me to task for what she saw as "having fun at her daughter's expense". The Mail Online followed through by chiding me and my Twitter buddy as trolls.

All of which signals the dangers of commenting about celebrities in the current environment.

We've had a summer in which utterances by obscure people with an opinion have been picked up.

For example, a TV Guide reader was hung, drawn and quartered when he criticised TV One sports presenter Jenny-May Clarkson for appearing on screen pregnant (of course she can, but TVNZ could also make sure her clothes fit).

Chris Gayle. Photo / Instagram:@chrisgayle333
Chris Gayle. Photo / Instagram:@chrisgayle333

And earlier this month, West Indies cricket star Chris Gayle was pilloried by Australian media and fined $10,000 by cricket officials for (foolishly) asking a female reporter out while she was interviewing him. Gayle was an idiot, though the Ten Network sports journalist later said she just wanted to "move on" from the incident.

The upshot of such stories is that social media pile-ons appear to have joined the mainstream media menu.

They are popular stories. But the question is whether the bulk of the audience sees these events in quite the same way as the media and social media activists.

Too many awards

One of the country's biggest advertising agencies is cutting back on the number of awards shows it enters.

Marty O'Halloran is chairman of DDB Australia and New Zealand, which is a big player in both countries.

O'Halloran also sits on the international board of DDB and says the pullback from awards is part of a global strategy.

He says DDB New Zealand will still be entering some local gong shows like Axis for advertising creativity and the Advertising Effectiveness awards.

Internationally, he says, DDB will put more emphasis on big awards like the Cannes Lions.

But he says the number of awards shows has proliferated in recent years - including specialist awards for sectors such as health and digital advertising.

"There's an absolute obsession with awards and as a result more and more shows have cropped up with more and more categories, and it's become this sort of game," O'Halloran told the Australian marketing sector website Mumbrella.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been 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.

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