John Drinnan: Slicing the state funding pie

Is support for drama best use of public money?
Kahn West stars as Terry Teo in TVNZ's teen drama.
Kahn West stars as Terry Teo in TVNZ's teen drama.

Television New Zealand's declaration that it will find a prime-time spot for teen drama series Terry Teo will quieten plaintive cries that it might only be shown through the OnDemand service.

Some observers had criticised TVNZ's handling of the show, but on Wednesday the broadcaster confirmed that it would also be running on prime-time traditional TV later this year.

The circumstances of the kerfuffle are instructive.

We have an emerging crisis in funding local content, thanks to the invasion of the ad-snatchers, such as Google and Facebook. Meanwhile, Terry Teo had delivered a show suitable for a Parental Guidance Recommended (PG) rating.

That was despite NZ On Air having given $1.3 million for a children's programme to run in a G-rated 6pm timeslot. So the TV run has had to be delayed so TVNZ can find a later PG timeslot.

There is a tussle under way over who gets public money for media. Some believe TV networks have had it too good for too long, and that money they receive would be better spent elsewhere.

NZ on Air says a draft new content strategy will be fully developed for the 2017-18 statement of performance expectations, ready to be implemented on July 1 next year.

Money for some

Duncan Greive - editor of the growing pop culture website The Spinoff - this week reacted passionately to the Terry Teo funding issue.

He took the view that it signalled "the end of the NZ On Air model as we know it", and that digital media companies would access NZ On Air funding and remove the networks' "stranglehold" on the big money.

NZ On Air will unveil audience research next week at a seminar in Auckland that is said to show significant shifts that will no doubt inform a change in funding priorities for 2017/18.

Media organisations will be watching closely to see if the agency will change the way it slices the pie for state funding of content.

The critics have a point: the funding agency needs a shakeup. Journalism is becoming less commercially viable, but it has more public service value than The X Factor.

Some believe NZ On Air might get a bigger bang for its buck by taking money away from expensive TV drama and spreading support more widely. But in my view there are dangers in a government agency taking a big role in the media sector.

TVNZ and TV3 are dependent on NZ On Air funding and the issue of whether the networks could themselves afford to pay for more programming has been brushed aside.

Foreign correspondent

TV news bulletins need to adapt to a new world order of breakneck change in the international news agenda, say former news directors Mark Jennings and Mark Boyd. And the present head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, John Gillespie, says overseas based staff are already working on ways to deliver added value.

Brexit, terror attacks and mass shootings, growing tension in the South China Sea and the Trump candidacy have combined to create an astonishing time for news - but I wonder how many news consumers nowadays rely on network bulletins to stay informed.

Many go straight to online news. And sometimes we get news on the run via mobile. So when we watch overseas news on the 6pm bulletin, we feel like we've seen it all before.

This applies to local news too, but it's less pronounced than it is with world events.

What added value do we get from our foreign correspondents? TVNZ has Jack Tame in the US, and like TV3 it has correspondents in Europe and Australia.

Gillespie said TVNZ was geared up to provide 4G pictures quickly and the overseas bureau worked very efficiently. Part of the problem was that international news feeds are timed for the western hemisphere.

But Jennings - formerly news director at MediaWorks - and Mark Boyd - formerly head of TV news and current affairs at Australia's SBS - say networks need to change the international segment of news bulletins. Jennings says the issue for overseas-based New Zealand reporters is always about context - "why something is happening".

Boyd says there have been recent cases where NZ broadcasters had "dropped the ball", for example by paying too little attention to the judgment in The Hague over China's claim to parts of the South China Sea.

"This is a big story - a lot of our trade goes through there, it could lead to armed confrontation - yet here the story was running 25 minutes into the bulletin and there were no questions about the implications," Boyd says.

"Part of the issue is that New Zealand does not have serious current affairs like it had with Campbell Live or the Holmes show. In the past you might have had correspondents or presenters on Holmes and Campbell. In that sense you wonder what is the point of having these people based there?" Boyd says.

This article has been clarified to say that NZ on Air will reveal audience research on media consumption next week, not information on funding priorities.

- 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.

Read more by John Drinnan

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