John Drinnan: The future of Freeview

TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick.
TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick.

The media revolution is about to hit free-to-air TV, as TVNZ tries to take a majority stake in the Freeview platform.

It's just the latest big change in media, but some in the industry fear such a move would make TVNZ more influential as a gatekeeper for new, independent channels. There are suggestions that it could use Freeview to make a foray into pay TV, and to make itself more attractive to a potential partner such as Spark.

Freeview is a non-profit body controlled by four broadcasters. Its main role is in controlling the electronic programming guide, approving new channels and setting technical requirements. Freeview general manager Sam Irvine describes it as the software infrastructure for free-to-air television.

TVNZ has the biggest stake, at 45 per cent, MediaWorks has about 40 per cent, and Maori TV and Radio NZ have the remainder.

One TV industry source, who declined to be named, argues that the incumbent broadcasters already have too much power and that Freeview should become an industry-wide organisation.

Instead, it was moving in the opposite direction as a TVNZ profit centre, the source said.

TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick confirmed change was afoot, but gave scant detail:

"TVNZ is one of four Freeview shareholders and is committed to working with other shareholders to realise the platform's full potential," he said.

"The strength of Freeview is the breadth of content from its various shareholders and our current focus is to provide simple and easy access to the most compelling content across a wide range of viewing devices," said Kenrick.

Notably, he referred to shareholders' content, and not to content from the wider industry.

Yes, Minister?

Two parties will be fundamental to whether any Freeview takeover goes ahead.

The first is MediaWorks - owner of TV3 and a partner in the Bravo channel.

It is understood that the minor players - both state-owned - have been coaxed to sell their stakes. That would not be necessary for a majority stake if MediaWorks were on board.

The other key player is the Government. It has a conflict of interest, given that it is TVNZ's owner. Broadcasting Minister Amy Adams' office did not respond to requests for comment by print time.

TVNZ - like MediaWorks, for that matter - desperately needs to form relationships with other players so it can keep up with radical changes to the ownership structure of media.

NZME and Fairfax, Sky TV and Vodafone are seeking approval for their respective mergers, and it is understood Treasury has advised TVNZ not to be left out during the current coagulation of the media industry.

It is expected TVNZ will sell the idea of controlling Freeview as a bulwark against the intrusion of global players such as Google and Facebook.

Mayor Goff

It will be interesting to see whether Phil Goff changes the culture of the Auckland mayor's office. For most of his second term, Len Brown seemed to have adopted a siege mentality with the media.

Goff has appointed his own people to his office. His mayoral chief of staff is Fran Mold, a former Herald and TVNZ reporter who was chief spin doctor for Labour. His senior press secretary is Nirupa George, who was political officer for the Green Party and who more recently worked with Goff on his election campaign.

The chief press secretary is Mike Burgess, who came from PR firm Baldwin Boyle, where he worked on the Fonterra account.

Goff's election campaign was headed by David Lewis, a former spin doctor for Helen Clark who has been loyal to Labour in past Auckland political campaigns. He says his work for Goff has been voluntary.

Now the election is over, Lewis has formed a new firm, Thompson Lewis, with another former Labour Party senior press secretary, GJ Thompson. At one time Thompson was a spin doctor for Sky City, and also spent a short spell at Fonterra. Thompson declined to name clients for the firm, and Lewis said the new company was not working with the Auckland Council.

Metro moves

Changes to make Metro magazine bi-monthly are inevitable in my view, and something of a relief. At least the quintessentially Auckland title will survive.

However, high-profile commentators have lamented the redundancy of former editor Simon Wilson.

Wilson stepped down from the editor's post 12 months ago, to be editor-at-large. The editor's role has since been held by Susannah Walker.

There is no doubt Wilson was an energetic presence and took Metro somewhere new - to the liberal left, though that did not prove to be its saviour as a monthly. It will be interesting to see where Walker takes Metro in its new format.

John Drinnan also writes at Zagzigger.com

- 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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