Hard News by Russell Brown


NZ On Air and the bill that does bugger-all

In yesterday's edition of Mike's Minute, the broadcaster's reliably thoughtful and exhaustively cited "Morena!" to the nation, Mike Hosking weighs in behind National MP Melissa Lee's bill to require NZ On Air to report, on a quarterly basis, the ratings of every TV or radio show it funds.

He declares:

NZ on Air is in charge of millions of our dollars, and they fund programmes which look to be getting increasingly eclectic, and watched by fewer and fewer people.  

We don’t know all of it for sure, because NZ on Air only publish the numbers for their 10 most popular shows.  

But given they fund hundreds that's a lot of dross that never really gets under the light of the public scrutiny.

You might think from reading this that the ratings of TV programmes are some secret knowledge that no one can know unless the government lets on. This is not the case. Although NZ On Air's agreement with the ratings company Nielsen allows it to publish only the Top 10 in its own right, thousands of people, the people whose employers have subscriber access to Nielsen ratings, look at them every day. Broadcasters, advertising agencies and independent producers all calibrate their work by the ratings. They know – to a reasonable but still contentious degree of precision – not only how many viewers watched a programme, but what parts they watched, and the age, gender, income and location of the viewers. Even an Opposition MP could access this information with a little effort. Journalists do it all the time.

This is important because the size and character of a viewing audience has a direct bearing on the advertising income that makes commercial broadcasting possible. Indeed, that's the whole point of ratings. They're a research model designed for advertisers.

But NZ On Air uses ratings too: they're a key part of the agency's fairly complex accountability structure, as laid out in its last Statement of Performance Expectations. For instance, NZ On Air commits to the following new measure: 

Over 50% of first run funded prime time (6 pm to 10.30 pm) content for TV achieves average audiences of 100,000 or higher.

The agency should not have too much trouble hitting that benchmark. Its 2017 annual report declares that 91% of its funded prime-time programming for TVNZ 1, TVNZ 2 and TV3 attracted audiences greater than 100,000, and two thirds of that 91% came in over the 200,000 mark. Having targeted "at least 50%" of its funding for prime-time programming, it eventually directed 68% of funding to prime-time programmes.

In short, it does not appear from the numbers that NZ On Air is, as Hosking contends, an out-of-control slush fund for unemployed hipsters making programmes no one watches.

But that's not the only performance measure: there are separate metrics for online, music and radio, and targets for independent research into audience satisfaction. NZ On Air is also committed by law to funding programming for various niche audiences, which can't sensibly be measured simply by counting commercial ratings. Indeed, programmes like the long-running disability TV show Attitude are funded precisely because in a wholly commercial system they would not be made. And NZ On Air regularly cops criticism for funding top-rating programmes that could have gotten up without its help.

It's a perennial balancing act. But take it from me, NZ On Air is always measuring and reporting, by whatever means is appropriate, the results of its funding decisions.

Mike then gets on to what it perhaps the real motivation for his argument: The Spinoff. The Spinoff has, in the past year, become something of a cause celebre for the campaigning Right. Since March, the Taxpayers' Union has published half a dozen press releases slating The Spinoff for doing a commercial content sponsorship with IRD, entering a content sharing agreement with RNZ and, most recently, making a not-very-successful TV show. It has the feel of a pile-on.

One Mike is only too happy to join:

The website, which for reasons no one can really fathom, got $700,000 to indulge themselves in a more visual version of what they do on their website.  

Given they had never made TV before it went pretty much the way you thought it would, straight to the dustbin of TV history. Virtually no one saw it after the handful who watched the first one ran for the hills, or in this case the remote.  

And here is where part of the problem is, the snobbishness that drives NZ on Air.

As regards releasing figures as to the success of their choices, they said, "I don’t know there would be a great deal of appetite for it, because you are sort of inviting the court of public opinion to make decisions about things".

If Mike truly can't fathom the reason it happened,  I can help. It was funded because TV3 made a broadcast committment. That really is the reason any commercial TV broadcast proposal gets funded: a broadcast company is prepared to show it, either because it figures it can make a dollar from screening the programme, or (see: Sunday mornings on TVNZ) there's no money to be made anyway.

The Spinoff TV was funded in the same round that my long-running sequence of media TV shows met its end, and I cannot quibble with that decision. We'd had a good run and NZ On Air needs to foster new content from its limited pool of funding. And The Spinoff, given the way it's managed to consistently grow its online audience and the innovative ways it has done so, was a really obvious choice.

So what went wrong? My guess – and it is just a guess, because I haven't talked to them – is that TV3 sees the slot The Spinoff TV debuted in as a Friday night comedy slot, home to the likes of Jono and Ben and Funny Girls. So the expectation was that The Spinoff team would produce comedy. Now, there's certainly a consistent vein of humour on the original website, but it's not necessarily humour that translates well to the screen. A better representation of The Spinoff might have been more like the podcasts, with Alex and Leonie engaging guests in the studio, rather than constantly (and slightly manically) throwing to video tracks by writers who were still finding (and sometimes not finding) their own comedic feet.

But The Spinoff TV didn't hold its audience and after three short weeks it was demoted to the 10.45pm slot, whereupon its viewership totally fell off a cliff. The fare has actually improved quite a bit in recent weeks, as they get a better handle on what does and doesn't work, but you'd have to guess it's too late and TV3 will regard its experiment as a failure. That's a thing about TV: unless your strategy is to try nothing new, you will occasionally have failures.

In a press release last week, the Taxpayers' Union gleefully characterised Lee's bill as The Spinoff TV Memorial Bill and declared that with its "abysmal viewership ratings", the programme was "just one example of NZ on Air wasting our money on pet projects that no-one wants to watch."

It seems to bear noting that last month, the Taxpayers' Union issued a different press statement complaining that NZ On Air funds programmes such as 7 Days and Jono and Ben that have rated consistently well, on the basis that those shows "do little to add to New Zealand culture, and ought to obtain their funding commercially". It's almost enough to make you doubt the good faith of the Taxpayers' Union.

It also seems lost on those involved that all this crowing comes off the back of the same ratings numbers Lee's bill presumes are being witheld. It is, frankly, a piffling use of Parliament's time to pass a law requiring a minor change to the reporting of information that almost every stakeholder has anyway. It will not "rein in" NZ On Air as Mike Hosking believes. It's the kind of thing that might be the subject of a request from the Minister of Broadcasting to the board.

Previous Broadcasting ministers have not made such a request, and as it happens, the current minister has not either. Her formal Letter of Expectations for 2018-2019, a rather vague document, asks NZ On Air's board to work faithfully with her new quango (whose terms don't seem to have been established yet) and to prepare a "rigorous" and "high-quality" business case in advance of a review of broadcast funding whose terms are not clear either. The only clear operational requests are for more captioning to be funded and for NZ On Air funding acknowledgements to be discontinued on RNZ. It might be a confusing few months.

Lee might have been better advised to drill into transparency issues there rather than pursue a bill that, for all the hand-waving of Hosking and the Taxpayers' Union, actually does bugger-all.

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