Winter in the Deep, Deep South – A Challenging Season for Broadcast Media in Australia and New Zealand

Winter in the Deep, Deep South – A Challenging Season for Broadcast Media in Australia and New Zealand

Is New Zealand, a nation of five million people, the canary in the media coal mine? A society that can no longer support viable local broadcast businesses amid the rise of multinational digital platforms that produce no content but dominate the attention of audiences and advertisers.

By Gaven Morris

As a piece of political reporting, it was a funny stunt but effective in hitting its mark. In the early stages of New Zealand’s 2023 election campaign, Newshub political reporter Lloyd Burr sat in a live press conference brandishing items of fresh produce to quiz the nation’s Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on the status of each, under his policy of removing goods and services tax on fruit and vegetables. 

Is a bulb of garlic a vegetable and therefore GST-free? Yes. What about a package of garlic cloves? Probably not. A fresh herb, a chopped herb, a potted herb? Not sure. Et cetera.

As journalists snickered, the PM grew visibly frustrated at the complexities of his policy and at the audacity of the questioner. It became a symbol of a faltering government – Hipkins’ Labour Party went on to lose the October election.

It was also exactly the sort of feisty reporting and audience-enticing television Newshub crafted its reputation on over 35 years as a commercial upstart in a broadcast media market dominated by the publicly owned TVNZ and Radio New Zealand.

But no more. On July 5, Newshub will broadcast its last television news bulletin on the TV3 network. Lloyd Burr and more than 200 of his colleagues will be redundant – a large proportion of the country’s news industry. Warner Brothers Discovery, the owner of Newshub, says it’s no longer able to sustain production in the market and while it has since announced it will buy back a single news bulletin to be produced by the newspaper and digital publisher Stuff, it’ll be for a fraction of the budget and staff for its existing suite of programs. Newshub’s website – NZ’s fourth most popular – will cease in its current form with no word yet on whether Stuff plans to maintain something on the domain alongside its existing news website. Regardless, competition and the diversity of voices will diminish. It is a familiar conundrum – a broadcast-focused business no longer able to afford the full service with a growing digital offer that can’t stack up enough revenue to support the mothership.

Michael Morrah, Newshub’s leading investigative reporter put it this way, “This is devastating for myself and all my colleagues, but it’s devastating for New Zealand as a whole … Newshub acted to better society, and it’s a huge blow for democracy.”

There is little solace elsewhere in the NZ industry. Across Auckland at the government owned (but commercially funded) TVNZ, current affairs programs and dozens of jobs are also being axed, as revenue falls and budgets wither. Public funding for Radio New Zealand may also be impacted by government-wide cuts due to be revealed next month.

As an industry veteran remarked to me, “it’s cooked, broadcast news is done.”

Is New Zealand, a nation of five million people, the canary in the media coal mine? A society that can no longer support viable local broadcast businesses amid the rise of multinational digital platforms that produce no content but dominate the attention of audiences and advertisers. 

Across the Tasman Sea in Australia, any complacency around NZ being just too small a market to sustain a healthy news ecosystem is being shaken by falling linear audiences and income. Since the end of the Indian summer of post-COVID restored revenue, something like half a billion dollars of advertising spend has shifted away from broadcasters, much of it ending up with Google and Meta. Not a dip, it is a prophetic dive likely never returning to the surface. 

Compounding this, Meta has called the Australian government’s bluff on world-leading legislation to force it and Google to fund newsrooms for their content. After just three years, Meta will no longer pay up and is hinting any further regulatory sanctions could result in it removing all news content (as it has done in Canada) or leaving the market altogether. For big media, going cold turkey on the unedifying dependency on Facebook cash means looming broad-scale job cuts across the industry. For small, independent and start-up newsrooms, Meta’s withdrawal from the market would be an existential severing of a vital lifeline to audiences.

With on-demand viewing and listening habits entrenched and AI-powered personalised news experiences in prospect, the very of idea of scheduled broadcast bulletins is an anachronism rapidly dawning on media businesses. No smart TV requires a connection to a roof-top aerial to receive the terrestrial transmissions they still pay tens of millions of dollars to pump out. Electric cars can’t receive AM radio. Those iron towers on the hills of every city and town are to be the windmills and smokestacks of a forgotten time. And contemporary consumers of information are in no way sentimental about it.

Perhaps here in the deep, deep South, some media operators have been too slow to take note of the portends of industry consolidation and market ructions in the Northern Hemisphere. Distance, opposite time zones and a lack of diversity in media ownership have possibly been a convenient shield from cold commercial reality.

But winter has come. 

What happens next in Australia and New Zealand media is difficult to foresee. Old empires are falling. Legislators have been either too slow to act (NZ) or have acted with too narrow a view (Australia), where the heralded Digital Platforms Code ensured secret payments to the largest newsrooms requiring no reinvestment in innovation and journalism and little requirement for the platforms to be fair to small and independent operators. It is a recipe for a digital information economy that is neither fair, transparent, commercially sustainable nor, it turns out, enduring.

Like everywhere else, broadcast video on demand (BVOD) is the promised land offering audience reach and FAST (free advertising supported TV) dollars but it’s unlikely to fully replace the rivers of broadcast revenue. Now, as the big digital platforms lick their chops at the commercial prospects of generative AI and the further commoditization of information, local voices and choices in markets on the fringes of global decisions will be further diffused. 

In Aotearoa, New Zealand, the truth is hundreds of dedicated news people will soon hand in their Newshub and TVNZ staff badges and most will likely head off into a career change outside of journalism. I’ve been working with the team at Newshub and have seldom met more passionate professionals committed to their craft and a mission to serve the community. Their absence will be a loss to us all.

Next election, it’s likely the questions asked of New Zealand’s leaders will be less provocative, interesting, and impactful. The politicians will be relieved. The public will be none the wiser. And the digital platforms will be bigger, more automated, and more profitable than ever.  

PS, here’s a link to the Lloyd Burr/Chris Hipkins story mentioned above. While you’re on the website, it’s worth exploring what Kiwis are going to miss when Newshub closes in July.

Gaven Morris is the Managing Director of Bastion Transform, a content strategy and digital transformation consultancy he established in Sydney, Australia. He’s an industry professor at Western Sydney University and a former Director of News, Analysis, and Investigations at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was previously an editor, producer and reporter with CNN and a senior leader at Al Jazeera across a 30-year journalism career that started as a newspaper copy kid.