TV, radio bosses depart, and a Commerce Commission delay creates a log jam

The resignations of two high-profile media leaders suggest another round of change lies ahead for the industry.

Jeff Latch is leaving TVNZ in July after 23 years, including 10 as director of content.

He is departing amid restructuring focused on the news division. More widespread changes are expected across the business.

The resignation of MediaWorks Radio's chief executive Wendy Palmer was a big surprise. She had survived the frustrations many MediaWorks staff felt in the Mark Weldon era. Now the company is in calmer waters but she is sailing away.

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On the face of it, both are leaving with their businesses in good fettle -- at least if you disregard the threat from global media firms.

These may not be the best of times for TV networks, but TVNZ is increasing its market share and MediaWorks Radio has always delivered a golden harvest for its parent.

Unlatching

Latch's departure is significant. The head of content is effectively second in command behind chief executive Kevin Kenrick, but sources say that when Kenrick eventually steps down he is likely to be replaced by Paul Maher, who recently returned to TVNZ as commercial director.

After Latch, TVNZ will be more reliant on long-time acquisitions, commissioning and production boss Andrew Shaw, who started out as a kids' TV presenter and has held numerous roles in the production sector.

Log jam

Delays in a Commerce Commission decision are creating a log jam of changes to media investment.

The latest delay to the NZME-Fairfax merger decision has increased speculation the ComCom may reverse its draft rejection of the deal issued last November -- though the commission has given no such indication The decision had been due on March 15, then April 11. On Wednesday, the commission issued its second delay in three weeks and the decision is now scheduled for May 2.

The determination will obviously have huge impact on NZME and Fairfax and may also have implications for other media.

In Australia, private equity firm TPG has been considering a takeover bid for Fairfax Media, the parent of Fairfax NZ, the Australian Financial Review has reported.

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Any move by TPG -- a non-Australian firm restricted to a 5 per cent stake unless it gets approval to go further -- could be influenced by whether the Australian Government finally changes media ownership rules.

Closer ties

The NZME-Fairfax decision is likely to affect closer links between TVNZ and MediaWorks, sources say.

Nobody expects a full-fledged merger of the two TV firms. But TVNZ's Kenrick has said the market cannot sustain two free-to-air companies and they should work together.

Sharing back-office facilities, or MediaWorks using TVNZ's capacity to transmit TV3, could make sense. A common view among media companies is that they should be fighting global players like Google and Facebook, not each another.

Spark & Freeview

Spark celebrated when the Commerce Commission rejected a proposed merger of Sky TV with Spark's arch-rival Vodafone.

The full reasons for the rejection have not been released and Vodafone has issued preliminary appeals.

But you wonder how much of the merger could be achieved through joint ventures and informal co-operation anyway.

Sources say TVNZ still wants to buy out its partners in the Freeview platform, enabling it to negotiate with Spark to place Lightbox or (more likely) Netflix on the Freeview electronic programming guide. TVNZ owns 44.9 per cent of Freeview but has faced resistance from its other owners: MediaWorks, RNZ and Maori TV.

More to go at TVNZ

TVNZ is beginning its restructuring by laying off about 20 journalists and downgrading its Christchurch and Wellington news bureaus. More jobs are expected to go in in a wider restructuring.

Technology will compensate for the loss of staff, TVNZ says. Assigning reporters to provincial centres such as Queenstown and Nelson will be used to justify the central role for the flash TVNZ headquarters in Auckland.

A cynic might see the idea as a public relations gesture in an election year, and justification for the $23 million blowout for the refurbished network centre, which cost $60m.

Kenrick rejects any suggestion that the refurbishing blowout and the latest cost cutting to news sums up the broadcaster's priorities.

He says the extra cost was because it was the first refurbishment in 25 years and the job was bigger than expected.

From a business perspective, it is hard to argue with Kenrick and the board, whose sole focus is on profitability. But it harks back to a question I have asked many times before: what is the point of building up a commercially focused TVNZ when journalism is crashing and private sector media are fighting for survival?

In my opinion, National has given consumers the worst of both worlds.