Labour's new media policy crowns Radio NZ as the king of public interest content.

But Labour would leave TVNZ to get on with its commercial business. Indeed, Labour would be taking a harder line on TVNZ delivering a decent dividend.

In leaving TVNZ out of its plans, the party may have made the correct decision. Labour ultimately lost against TVNZ with the charter it imposed in the 2000s, and might well have faced a fight if it sought to impose a non-commercial role on the television company.

But in my opinion, the commercial focus of state-owned TV remains a structural problem for the New Zealand media industry.


Labour's policy, announced this week, would set up a commission to fund a public broadcasting channel, or channels, called RNZ+, which would include "a free-to-air non-commercial television service".

Labour has signalled $38 million for the first year, to be apportioned between RNZ+ and NZ on Air.

$38m enough?

The cost of making television has fallen with the advent of digital technology. But how far would less than $38m really go?

Video content is important to attract younger viewers. But you could get more bang for your buck by focusing on digital, print or audio.

RNZ+ would be run out of the broadcaster's Auckland headquarters.

Media folk - especially those of a liberal political persuasion - will welcome extra money.

New Zealand is enjoying a golden era, with commercial companies such as Herald publisher NZME, Fairfax, Newsroom and The Spinoff offering solid content. But as Facebook and Google take an ever-greater share of advertising revenue, some media are looking for taxpayers to fill the gap.

Public broadcasting activists will see the planned launch of RNZ+ as the start of a new taxpayer-funded arm for TV broadcasting.


But how much do taxpayers want to spend on public broadcasting, amid funding shortfalls for health, education and welfare?

Over the past nine years, National has abandoned media to the gathering storm, with the solace of allowing TVNZ to have holidays from paying dividends. Under its proposal, Labour has allowed TVNZ to avoid being obliged to provide public broadcasting.

Labour broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran said Labour would be ensuring that TVNZ provided a proper return to the government. What that means, in a tight advertising market, is that TVNZ will take a more aggressive approach in competing against the private sector.

Fairfax Media was critical of the RNZ+ plan. New Zealand chief executive Sinead Boucher said: "I am not convinced New Zealanders have much appetite for more of their journalism to ultimately flow up to government control." Boucher said she would prefer a Labour Government to put any extra money entirely into a publicly-contestable fund, "so that all of the independent media companies serving the communities and cities in New Zealand could seek extra support to allow them to continue doing so."

TVNZ 7 repeated

The notion of RNZ+ has been compared to TVNZ 7, the four-year experimental channel, directly funded by the government, which ran from 2008 to 2012 but was killed by TVNZ when the money ran out.

TVNZ 7 had a passionate following and reportedly only cost around $15m a year, though TVNZ said it was heavily subsidised from commercial revenue. TVNZ 7 was a mixed bag, but the fact is that TVNZ had technical expertise that RNZ does not - it would need to bring in talent.

In my view, RNZ has made some impressive changes over the past two or three years, and has become more lively. But I believe it has some lingering cultural issues as well.

For many years, RNZ was distrusted by National Party politicians who perceived a Labour bias. Those perceptions need to be resolved if Labour gets in and gives RNZ more public cash and a TV role.

A source tells me initiatives have been taken to rid RNZ of a liberal bias that affected feature programming.

There are also signs of a celebrity culture creeping into RNZ since the arrival of John Campbell, Jesse Mulligan and Wallace Chapman.

Under previous chief executive Peter Cavanagh, RNZ was somewhat obsessive about controlling the commercial connections of its staff. But nowadays, for example, Mulligan zips between his roles on RNZ's afternoon show and his evening job presenting The Project on Three.

Maybe things need to be tidied up if extra money is coming RNZ's way.