Peter Williams: The return of the NZBC

Opinion 14/11/2019
Photo: Google Maps.

OPINION: The big gossip in our coffee room today, and I imagine in media company offices all over the country this morning is this report from Radio NZ (RNZ) that the government is going to disestablish both RNZ and TVNZ and create an entirely new public broadcasting entity.

Now this is just a preliminary report, it has not yet made it to cabinet, but some sort of advisory group comprising people from both RNZ and TVNZ has come up with a few options, and this is the preferred one. The idea will go to cabinet hopefully before the end of the year but even if the idea is approved, it will take some years for it to be implemented - and there could well be a change of government in that time. Not that it would necessarily matter because the New Zealand media industry is in such a dire state financially that some sort of significant structural change is needed and would likely survive a change of government.

This, for those of a certain generation, will mean the completion of the circle.

When I first joined the state broadcasting system 46 years ago, there was this thing called the NZBC – or the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. It owned a TV network and whole lot of radio stations. Then when the Labour government under Norman Kirk came to power, they didn’t want a non-government owned second TV channel which had been approved by the previous National government, so they split the NZBC into two state owned TV corporations - TV1 and TV2 and made a separate entity of Radio New Zealand, today more colloquially known as RNZ.

Now along the way, RNZ has sold off its commercial radio stations, TV1 and TV2 have been brought back together to form TVNZ, and a whole lot of other players have entered the market. Then this thing called the internet has wrecked the financial fun for all of them. So now the government’s broadcasting assets have to somehow be made more efficient, more financially viable than what they are at the moment.

So a merger of TVNZ and RNZ is back on the cards and a new entity, which will operate as a “not for profit” is a very likely outcome.

With the commercial imperative taken away from TVNZ, although it will still have advertising under the plan at the moment, the sale of MediaWorks TV, comprising of Three and Bravo, suddenly becomes a more attractive proposition.

But I kind of feel a sense of irony here. It was Labour government that split the old NZBC, and it may well be a Labour government that at least puts in the mechanism to basically bring it back together.

It is years away of course, but every CEO and CFO in the media industry knows that the status quo can’t go on.

Back in the 1970s it took from early 1973 when the original idea was floated - of all people by Roger Douglas - to April 1975 before the new structure came into being.

It will take at least that long this time too, but it looks like major changes are on the way. If you want a state owned radio and TV in future it sounds like you’ll get it with less advertising - but don’t worry you’ll still be paying somehow.

Peter Williams is host of Mornings on Magic Talk, 9am – 12pm weekdays