John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: Shakeup for TVNZ

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State broadcaster’s newsroom used to fiercely guard its editorial independence, but now management values rule.

Elisabeth Moss, who featured in the Jane Campion television series Top of the Lake. New grants are apparently encouraging interest in similar NZ productions.
Elisabeth Moss, who featured in the Jane Campion television series Top of the Lake. New grants are apparently encouraging interest in similar NZ productions.

Television New Zealand is shaking up its newsroom - again.

The state broadcaster has confirmed it is planning another restructure of news and current affairs. Some positions are expected to be disestablished, and an announcement is imminent.

As a result of the changes, TVNZ current affairs programmes will report to head of operations Lindsay Chalmers.

Chalmers, who is not a journalist, has been filling in while head of news and current affairs John Gillespie was on leave.

The non-editorial reporting line for current affairs will be dismissed by non-news people as "much ado about nothing". As digital takes over, all media are being restructured and dividing lines between advertising, news and corporate interests are being broken down.

But Chalmers' expertise notwithstanding, this marks another backward step for a newsroom that once fiercely resisted intrusion from corporate bosses in editorial matters.

It is also a surprising decision from a state broadcaster so close to an election campaign. In my opinion, it means a loss of newsroom independence.

The current affairs section includes Fair Go and Sunday, and possibly the wholly taxpayer-funded Sunday programme Q&A, though I understand it does not include daily shows such as Seven Sharp.

Sources say Gillespie, who has faced many challenges as head of news and current affairs, is overseeing the change and will retain his overall role. Chalmers is said to be a solid manager but has worked on the technology side of news and current affairs, not editorial.

Meanwhile, TVNZ management has said it aims to ask staff if they belong to a political party. It has also confirmed plans for "risk assessments" of news and current affairs issues. This increasingly corporate approach to managing news and current affairs is popular with TVNZ management, which lacks expertise in programming, let alone editorial values.

LET ME ASSURE YOU ...

Asked for comment, TVNZ said:

"We're not proposing a major restructure to news and current affairs. The changes we're talking about are quite modest in scale, but we appreciate it can be major for the people directly involved. To be fair to those people, we will work through any changes in-house first before making any public announcements. Once we've completed our internal discussions we'll be more than happy to comment more fully."

Asked about the role of a non-journalist overseeing current affairs, TVNZ said: "Let me assure you ... Lindsay [Chalmers] is an incredibly experienced and highly respected senior news manager".

"We are proud of our news team's work - we attribute this to having the most capable people in our stable. We're constantly looking at how best [to] use their skills and we remain open to changing structures, resourcing and accountabilities to maintain our news leadership position," the TVNZ spokeswoman said.

TOO MUCH?

Meanwhile, Radio New Zealand is pressing ahead with its own management restructuring. I expect this will lead to a comparatively complex new structure and changes in the news operation.

All media are grappling with the change to digital, and after a long period of atrophy, RNZ needs to act. But I do wonder if the shifting of resources to digital could undermine the radio product and drag RNZ into a cutthroat competitive market.

Speaking at a broadcaster's conference in Glasgow this year, chief executive Paul Thompson said RNZ had things going for it but "signs of robust health mask how vulnerable the broadcaster is to digital disruption".

Radio New Zealand boss, Paul Thompson.
Radio New Zealand boss, Paul Thompson.

This sounds like common sense, but commercial media people complained to me that Thompson downplayed radio's resilience to digital change. Thompson is well liked inside Radio NZ, but he is new to radio and his background is as head of editorial for Fairfax Media, which was more threatened by the shift to digital media.

IMPEY IN CHARGE

The newly-appointed chairman of NZ Rugby, Brent Impey, provides some valuable media industry nous. Impey said that changes to broadcasting would have an impact on the job, but declined to speculate on whether his expertise played a role in his appointment. He had a reputation as a wily operator when he was chief executive of MediaWorks. He points out that there are more issues at stake than TV rights. But that issue is especially relevant as Sanzar develops a new competition for Southern Hemisphere rugby.

Former MediaWorks chief executive Brent Impey. Photo/  Richard Robinson
Former MediaWorks chief executive Brent Impey. Photo/ Richard Robinson

FREE MARKET

Ad agencies will feel pleased that Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts has stepped down from the board of Telecom after six years. Nobody would challenge his insights on the board, but ad agencies have questioned whether his presence ensured Saatchi has never faced a review of its advertising account with Telecom.

Increase in grants beginning to spark interest

New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Dave Gibson is encouraged by early reaction to increases in grants to the film and television world.

Two programme makers are talking to the commission about TV series on the same scale as Jane Campion's Top of The Lake. "We are starting to see it have an effect on high-end co-productions," said Gibson. "There are a couple of fish on the hook now, but there could be more."

Gibson said the TV incentive that took effect on April 1 is uncapped. That means it is not limited to one or two shows.

Elsewhere, the film industry has taken heart from the latest support package for the sector. Funding under the Large Budget Screen Production Grant is aimed at Hollywood, with the taxpayer rebate increased from 15 to 20 per cent, plus an additional 5 per cent for some projects. Some TV projects can get rebates of as much as 40 per cent.

Increased funding grew from the push for Weta Digital to secure sequels to Avatar. It grew with concern from the Auckland-based film and TV support companies which saw work collapse as the high New Zealand dollar made this country less viable for US productions.

The Film Commission has increasingly noted the two-speed film economy in New Zealand, with Peter Jackson's interests doing well as local film makers foundered.

Taxpayer support is beloved by the industry and governments, and by people who see film and TV projects as a high-profile way of supporting New Zealand's brand overseas, as well as providing work.

But despite the intense promotion of Hollywood and Peter Jackson's interests, it is still unclear if film and TV incentives provide a return on taxpayers' money.

Clearly, a $100 million-plus production like The Hobbit provides economic activity. But some question whether taxpayer investment in other sectors might deliver a bigger return. A new study by the Statistics Department will look at the value added by the industry and take into account the high level of taxpayer investment.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

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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