Funding body must spread its money further

New Zealand on Air is trying to adjust its handouts, to deal with upheaval in the media world.

Like another key state cultural body - Radio NZ - the funding agency is dealing with extraordinary events, amid a nine-year funding freeze.

In both cases, it is unclear whether those freezes are part of any overarching strategy. Or is it just that the Government is not very interested?

Radio NZ has been earning plaudits for the way it dealt with the Kaikoura quake. New Zealand on Air, meanwhile, issued its annual report this week, reiterating its plans to spread itself more thinly, to fill the growing cracks in local content. The agency is poised to take a bigger role in areas such as video content and the new online media.


There is an emergency of sorts facing local content and it is not clear what role the agency will, or should, play in fixing it.

Chairwoman Miriam Dean said: "The media transformation this past year has been remarkable in its pace and breadth." New Zealand on Air was on a path of change and was trying to get support from stakeholders to simplify its systems and create one media fund, she said.

Broadcasters will be backing the agency all the way.

Ever since NZ on Air began in 1989, its taxpayer money has provided life support for commercial TV. Now, networks face a storm of problems, including depleted ad revenue, more competition and new video on demand services such as Netflix.

Network sources said they accept that they will lose some cash to new media operators. However, they believe they will continue to dominate with big-budget projects such as dramas.

Meanwhile, new media players are eyeing up taxpayer cash for video and audio content. However, the Government shows no signs of offering greater largesse.

I don't see any sign of an overall strategy guiding the state's role in the rapid transformation of the media sector. In other countries, this issue might be debated - but not here.

It may be time to ask to what extent the state will fill the funding gap.


Cash for news?

Taxpayers have lately been taking a bigger role in funding TV current affairs.
In the past, funding for news was off-limits, but I wonder if the door could be opened with the advent of comedy current affairs at prime time.

The new TV3 show, The Project - a combination of current affairs and entertainment - will involve the team that makes 7 Days, which already gets NZ on Air cash.

Chill winds

Meanwhile, a cold draft is swirling around TV drama.

There are no plans for cutbacks, but drama requires the biggest outlay of funding, compared with other types of content, and it is an area where the failures can be most obvious.

For NZ on Air, drama has always been the most expensive genre - even given the comparatively frugal budgets for NZ shows. Despite the cost, NZ on Air has been an enthusiastic backer.

Two series on TVNZ this year have had mixed fortunes, in my view. Filthy Rich "found an audience" on TV2, according to the funder. The show has been funded for a second series, with another $6.9 million But the TV One series Dirty Laundry did not find an audience, attracted dismal ratings and the broadcaster played it out in two combined episodes. On November 23, TVNZ ran the last two episodes.

Despite NZ on Air's past support, it's easy to see why drama producers might feel vulnerable.

The media transformation this past year has been remarkable in its pace and breadth.

The funding agency's chief executive, Jane Wrightson, insists that both were good shows.

Elsewhere, she said, it had been a good year for one-off dramas, such as Hillary on TV One.

Reactions to drama will always be subjective, and it is notoriously difficult around the world. But economically, drama shows are harder to justify in a small country like New Zealand.

Because of the way the funding system works, projects are chosen by the networks, not by NZ on Air, despite the fact that taxpayers pay most of the budgets.

TVNZ confirmed it was reviewing its commissioning department, but said that was not linked to the performance of any one show.

I asked Broadcasting Minister Amy Adams for her view on NZ on Air.

"NZ on Air is a high performing agency with a strong reputation for funding good quality local content," she said in a statement. "Its new draft strategy will allow it to continue to support to our local industry in light of shifting audience behaviours and increasing demand for content delivered in new ways.

"NZOA, appropriately, make their own choices about what to fund, independently of Government. Both RNZ and NZ on Air are performing well in achieving better public services within existing baselines, and I am confident they are in a strong position to continue providing high-quality content to the public of New Zealand."