New Zealand to merge public TV and radio as audiences shift

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Noting the rapid changes taking place in how people consume news and entertainment, New Zealand’s government on Thursday said it would merge its public television and radio broadcasters into a single new organization it hopes will be better placed to reach younger audiences.

The merger represents a major shakeup to the nation’s media landscape, potentially affecting about 1,000 employees across TVNZ and RNZ. The two broadcasters have been dominant players for decades, often setting the news agenda and providing shared cultural moments.

But they’ve also served different roles, with TVNZ selling ads and following a commercial model, while RNZ has run ad-free and acted in more of a public service role, notably in crises like earthquakes.

The new organization is likely to have an increased focus on growth areas like on-demand video, online news and podcasts. It will run under a legal charter requiring it to provide trustworthy news as a core service.

In making the announcement, Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi offered few details on how the merger would work, saying those decisions would be left to a new board that will be set up next month ahead of the merger’s completion in July next year.

Faafoi said the merger was vital to ensure people would continue to have access to reliable, trusted information and local content. He said the merger wasn’t about job cuts, and the new entity’s budget would be announced later.

The changes had been in the works for more than two years but were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. If anything, Faafoi said, the challenges facing traditional media had only intensified over that time.

“When the government began looking at this issue, TV and radio were ranked 1 and 2 for the biggest daily audience in New Zealand,” Faafoi said. “And now, they are 2 and 4.”

He said the top ranking had gone to on-demand video watched over services like YouTube while the No. 3 ranking had been taken by subscription streaming services like Netflix.

TVNZ employs about 690 staff and last year turned a small profit. RNZ employs more than 300 staff and the government pays its annual costs of about 50 million New Zealand dollars ($34 million).

TVNZ cautiously welcomed the changes.

“Creating a public media entity for the digital age is an exciting opportunity and we’re looking forward to engaging with this process and offering our expertise,” said Simon Power, the broadcaster’s new chief executive.

But many private media organizations were nervous.

Duncan Greive, a media commentator and founder of online news and entertainment site The Spinoff, said the priorities for any big new media organization would be to hunt for talented staff and grow audience share, both of which could hurt private media players.

“It’s absolutely confronting for the private-sector media, particularly those in the digital space,” he said.

Greive said the government was correct to identify some of the problems facing RNZ and TVNZ, but said there were also potential pitfalls to its plan.

The new organization could be vulnerable to having its budget slashed by future governments, he said. And audiences had been fracturing away from big media organizations, he said, with some embracing solo newsletter writers or podcasters like Joe Rogan.

Opposition lawmaker Melissa Lee said the merger was pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.

“New Zealand needs more quality voices in our media sector, not fewer,” she said.

The new organization will be expected to give a voice to marginalized groups and Indigenous Maori. RNZ’s ad-free offerings will be required to remain so.

TVNZ’s main competitor, Discovery’s channel Three, said what it knows about the merger so far looks good.

“Making it not-for-profit is exactly the right option, it allows the new merged entity to focus on the public good instead of what’s commercially best,” said Glen Kyne, the general manager of Discovery New Zealand.