The latest report from NZ On Air shows that Kiwi audiences continue their steady migration online, with Netflix now attracting more people than free-to-air TV channels Three and TVNZ 2.

The report, released every two years, surveyed a representative sample of 1414 New Zealanders to gain an understanding of what media Kiwis engage with on a typical day.

This time we saw a continuation of the trends taking shape when NZ On Air last released its results in 2016.

With a reach of 67 per cent, broadcast TV remains the media channel reaching the most people on a daily basis. However, based on the trend showing a decline from 83 per cent in 2014, this could well be the last time TV retains the spot on the top of the pile.

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This downward trend has also hit live New Zealand radio, which slid from a daily reach of 67 percent in 2014 to 55 per cent in the latest figures. It is, however, worth viewing these figures in light of the GFK survey results, which in July showed that 86 percent of New Zealanders continue to tune into radio on a weekly basis. There is also a positive to be seen in the fact that online radio listening (through services such as iHeart Radio) rose from six per cent in 2014 to 9 per cent in the latest rundown.

Countering the declines in live television and radio consumption, the report shows growth for the digital channels: online video, which is includes YouTube and Facebook, has risen from 30 to 45 per cent between 2014 and 2018; music streaming via channels such as YouTube and Spotify has rise from 23 to 39 percent; and SVOD viewing (subscription video on demand services such as Netflix and Lightbox) has gone from 17 to 28 per cent.

When it came to individual channels, TVNZ 1, somewhat surprisingly, bucked the downward trend, growing its daily reach from 40 per cent in 2016 to 43 per cent in the latest figures (this is, however, down on the 48 per cent in 2014).

This saw the free-to-air channel stay narrowly ahead of YouTube, which came in at second place at 42 per cent. Further back was Facebook on 32 per cent, Netflix on 27 per cent, MediaWorks-owned Three on 25 per cent and TVNZ 2 on 20 per cent.

This, in turn, means that Netflix is now bigger than two of New Zealand's major free-to-air channels – providing a strong indication of how much New Zealand's viewership habits are changing.

The NZ On Air report shows that TVNZ 1 remains the most popular channel in the country. Photo / NZ On Air
The NZ On Air report shows that TVNZ 1 remains the most popular channel in the country. Photo / NZ On Air

Earlier this year, MediaWorks chief executive Michael Anderson noted in a letter to a ministerial advisory group that his company might have to pull out of television in the future due to the continued challenges of operating in the local market.

While Anderson subsequently assured staff that there were no immediate plans to pull out of television, the latest NZ On Air figures show how challenging the environment is for MediaWorks, which not only has to compete with a state-backed competitor but also with bottomless money pit that is Netflix.

Reach doesn't mean high engagement

While we have seen a marked rise in the reach status of digital channels, this doesn't necessarily mean that levels of engagement are transferring as well.

New Zealanders continue to spend over two and a half hours watching linear TV each day, and over an hour and a half listening to radio each day.

The report notes that this has not changed overall since 2014, and it remains significantly ahead of the time spent on digital channels.

Comparatively, the time spent watching online video, via channels such as YouTube and Facebook, has increased to 49 minutes since 2016.

The one digital channel starting to rival the high levels of engagement traditional media is SVOD (such as Netflix), with its audience spending an average of 62 minutes per day watching shows.

This trend is only set to continue, with the study confirming that 54 per cent of all NZ homes now having access to SVOD services.

With Spark having won the rights to the Rugby World Cup, we can also expect a big promotional push in the coming months as the telco attempts to pull more Kiwis into the digital streaming space in preparation for the tournament.

News vs online video

One of the more worrying trends identified in the report is that online video has grown to overtake the weekly and daily audience of newspapers.

Online videos streamed via Facebook and YouTube now reach 52 per cent of Kiwis on a daily basis, while newspapers (including online) only reach 41 per cent.

Online video from mainstream publishers is also growing quickly, with the Herald nearly doubling its reach six per cent in 2016 to 11 per cent in the latest figures, indicating the strong appetite for news video content.

The rapid growth of Facebook and YouTube as sources of information should not be overlooked or under-estimated.

Consumption and reach have always strong indicators of influence – and if New Zealanders are increasingly influenced by the content they find on sites such as Facebook and YouTube this could start to pose problems similar to those we've seen in international markets where misinformation and false news is spread far and wide.

The issue with consumer-generated media is that it's incredibly difficult to moderate and hold accountable to the broadcasting standards that dictate what can and cannot be published on other channels.

Belinda Moffat, the chief executive of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, recently told the Herald that the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is currently reviewing how standards could be applied to online content.

"With respect to TV and radio, we currently operate under the 1989 Broadcasting Act, which provides the Authority with certain powers in the event that television and radio standards are not upheld," Moffat said.

"But the powers were set 30 years ago, and we consider that the Act and the powers need to be modernised."

Adopting laws that do, however, allow for the uniform application of standards across all media types is, however, easier said than done.

Waikato University media Professor Geoff Lealand, who also serves as a trustee on the Better Public Media Trust, told the Herald the problem is that laws designed to control digital media often come too late.

"The real problem is that regulation, intervention and control of newer media is that it is always in the rearguard, rather than the vanguard. The horse has not just bolted, but is disappearing over the horizon so to speak," he said.

"But that is not to say that governments, agencies, citizens and parents should engage with hateful speech, dodgy behaviour, misinformation, falsehood, fraud and so on, which permeates through the web."

Lealand believes that taking on these challenges and calling for greater accountability from Facebook and Google will require greater force than only the voice of our small island nation.

"New Zealand is a little too small, in global terms, to have much impact on these corporate monsters," he said.

"I think it requires a coalition of nations—starting with Australia and New Zealand in a joint venture."

See the full NZ On Air report: