John Drinnan: TVNZ undaunted by online shift

No need to fear an on-demand catastrophe.
Jeff Latch believes they don't have the same issues as the press, which has developed digital but also faces adapting to the overwhelming demand for video content. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jeff Latch believes they don't have the same issues as the press, which has developed digital but also faces adapting to the overwhelming demand for video content. Photo / Doug Sherring

Free-to-air TV won't face such dramatic upheaval as the print media, believes TVNZ head of television Jeff Latch.

"We don't have the same issues as the press, which has developed digital but also faces adapting to the overwhelming demand for video content," he says.

Broadcasters are developing a two-track approach, combining online on-demand content - with relatively low advertising revenue - while also focusing on traditional "linear" content with mass audiences.

Advertising commentator Martin Gillman expects ad revenue for New Zealand free-to-air TV will be down by 5 to 7 per cent this year. And he agrees with Latch that the changes for television "won't be catastrophic".

Though some tech-savvy media consumers insist they never watch free-to-air TV any more, Latch says that is "nonsense". Audiences for linear channels have to be seen in conjunction with on-demand screening, he says.

Subscription video on demand services such as Netflix have changed viewing habits, but Latch is more relaxed about Netflix taking audience than he is about Google and Facebook taking ad revenue.

Netflix's bids for global programming rights have been depicted by some as hastening the demise of territorial rights, which are the foundation of free-to-air TV. But, says Latch, "there is no way that is going to be quickly unwound".

Studios started the problem by giving Netflix low-cost programming, he says, but they are now wary of its growing power. The studios are less inclined to sell global rights to Netflix, thus undermining their other customers, he says.

Netflix is staggering releases of new shows and behaving more like a traditional network, says Latch.

Jeff Latch believes TVNZ don't have the same issues at the press. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Jeff Latch believes TVNZ don't have the same issues at the press. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Locally, TVNZ and MediaWorks will face more competition for taxpayer funding, with NZ On Air moving money to reflect the shift of viewers to digital video content. Media company NZME, publisher of the Herald, has been at the forefront of that change with its WatchMe programmes. However, Latch says he doesn't see the newcomers as a threat.

"NZ On Air is keen on access to the audience," he says. "Why would you want to move money, when with us they get two bites of the cherry, online and on-air?"

Online shift

NZ On Air is conducting a review of its funding priorities in response to consumers making the move online.

As part of that, media companies would probably be pleased to accept wider taxpayer funding for investigative journalism - an approach many in the private sector would have ruled out five years ago.

But industry sources tell me NZ On Air is wary of such a shift.

Any expansion of state-funded journalism - let alone investigative journalism - is fraught with dangers. Among other questions, how could the state be kept at a distance from the funding mechanism?

NZ On Air may not be enthusiastic about developing a new role, but it has been drifting into funding TV news and current affairs that would once have been considered out of the question. The Sunday TV political shows Q+A and The Nation are both taxpayer-funded.

They provide minority interest viewing that TVNZ and TV3 say would be commercially unviable if the programmes had to pay their way.

In April last year, NZ On Air agreed to fund investigative content on the TV3 programme 3rd Degree, then struggling, and now defunct.

The show made headlines for its continued campaign to release the jailed Teina Pora, but it was cancelled anyway because it was seen as commercially unviable.

Funding fears

If NZ On Air does change its funding priorities, how much financial risk will taxpayers be taking?

In my opinion, any shift to state financed investigative journalism needs to be established cautiously and meticulously.

On past experience, NZ On Air will come up with a panel of wise media people to oversee the funding - just as it gave the record industry influence over music funding.

Investigative journalism will touch on the role of government agencies and, done right, some stories will embarrass politicians.

The 2012 incident when John Key's electorate chairman and NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea raised a ruckus about the timing of a child poverty documentary illustrates the dangers, in my view.

Under the Broadcasting Act, NZ On Air can't get involved in the detail of editorial content, but the agency would still be in the firing line if stories point the finger at politicians.

By their nature, investigations involve delving into the unknown and sometimes they fall flat. The TVNZ-Radio NZ joint investigation of the Panama Papers was a case in point: it did not deliver the wham-bam results some might have hoped.

Behind the scenes, RNZ was attacked by the Government for enlisting the support of investigative journalist Nicky Hager.

Members of the NZ On Air board may be wary of alienating politicians who could harm their future.

In my view, a government-appointed board is the last organisation you want to have getting involved in investigative journalism.

- NZ Herald

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