Sky Television and NZ Rugby are working on a joint venture for pay-per-view live coverage of All Black games, despite the threat of anti-siphoning laws that would require games to be shown on free-to-air TV. That threat seems minimal.

Sky and NZ Rugby — which is chaired by former MediaWorks chief executive Brent Impey — did market research among Sky sports fans last year to test support for the idea.

The two could proceed together or alone, says Sky TV chief executive John Fellet. Any joint venture would only apply at the end of Sky's current contractual arrangements with NZ Rugby in 2020, he says.

Sport is the foundation of Sky's profits. On the face of it, any moves to introduce anti-siphoning rules would undermine that profit, but few expect such rules to eventuate.


While NZ First has promoted the idea, politicians from both Labour and National have long protected Sky from regulation.

Any attempt to introduce such laws might be popular with the public, but would probably be challenged by sporting codes, because free-to-air channels would be unlikely to match the returns from pay TV.

A spokeswoman for Clare Curran, the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, said: "Labour generally supports New Zealanders gaining better access to watch major sports events.

"We voted against a [NZ First] private members' bill last year which aimed to force the broadcast of sporting events free-to-air because it would have taken away $150m a year from New Zealand sports."

Radio with a plus

Labour's proposal for a free-to-air RNZ television service — RNZ+ — is a work in progress.

The policy was announced just two weeks before the election. I am told there was no discussion with RNZ before the announcement, let alone with other media players who will have to deal with the arrival of a fifth state-owned free-to-air channel, joining TVNZ1, TVNZ2, Duke and Maori TV.

MediaWorks chief executive Michael Anderson this week questioned the logic of Labour policy, warning that it will add to complex challenges facing private sector media.

We voted against a [NZ First] private members' bill last year which aimed to force the broadcast of sporting events free-to-air because it would have taken away $150m a year from New Zealand sports

Anderson said RNZ+ would exacerbate the issues of scale, given the oversupply of media in a country of just 4.5 million.


Stuff chief executive Sinead Boucher had previously warned of the dangers of RNZ+.

I asked her if the Government's plan had altered Fairfax plans to develop more video content. "It doesn't change our plans but I would support the money going into an expanded NZ on Air-type fund rather than straight to a state-owned media organisation," she says.

"The former is a better way to support existing media structures around the regions as well as the cities, and ensure real diversity of content and views."

In my view, there is probably demand for public broadcasting content on free-to-air TV, which is ignored by the commercial channels.

But is RNZ — starting virtually from scratch in the TV game, and with a reputation for aiming at a politically liberal audience — the right organisation to deliver it?

Anderson is an Australian, used to public service television from the ABC, and he cannot understand the role of a wholly commercial state-owned TVNZ, with no social obligations, competing for ad dollars.

He repeats the old idea of turning TVNZ1 into a non-commercial channel, funded by a commercial TVNZ2. Of course, MediaWorks' channels would also benefit from TVNZ1 being taken out of the ad market.

Some wonder whether Labour has plans for TVNZ, and if that is why it has so far been ignored. But according to one well-placed source, Labour is still wary of TVNZ's highly commercial culture, which killed the party's previous TVNZ charter, and TVNZ7.

Growing RNZ

Even within RNZ, some people believe it should focus on improving its existing radio and digital operations, rather than expanding into the notoriously costly and risky area of free-to-air television.

Meanwhile, RNZ has former TVNZ assistant chief executive Stephen Smith preparing for multimedia developments.

Smith is RNZ's head of audience strategy, and my sources tell me he will work alongside head of content Carol Hirschfeld, who has had a big influence on the increasingly confident culture at RNZ.

Smith says their roles will be distinct. He says one of the big issues will be in defining who RNZ is aiming at, and it will develop audience research and communications.

Smith rejected a suggestion that in developing its multimedia channels, RNZ was moving away from traditional radio.