New Zealand's regional TV stations have struggled in recent years, and now backing from the public purse is switching to multimedia projects instead. It also means mainstream media publishers will get public funding for news for the first time. Where's the money going and what's the plan?
In the 1960’s, regional TV was the only kind you could get. Separate NZBC schedules were broadcast from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
By the 1980’s, TV One was fully national but the evening news was followed by shows for the four regions - The Top Half, Today Tonight, The Mainland Touch and The South Tonight.
These disappeared when TVNZ drifted to Auckland and turned into a state-owned enterprise, but small independent local TV stations sprang up around the country.
Most were small and run on the small of an oily rag, and the programmes were often patchy. But some, such as Christchurch’s CTV and Cue TV in Invercargill, offered a genuine local alternative with reliable news which attracted viewers and advertisers. Cue TV and Stratos TV in Auckland even became available nationwide on Sky TV.
Backing from the public purse
The government gave funding agency New Zealand on Air almost $1 million in 2006 to back the regional channels around the country. NZ On Air had bumped that up to $1.5 million by 2014, but by then some of the local stations were struggling, especially with increased costs of transmission following the digital switchover.
Channels in Waikato, Hawke's Bay, Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty all closed down. In 2015 Invercargill’s Cue TV ceased broadcasting too.
"It is financially taxing to transmit and we are constantly searching for money. I think time is ticking for smaller players like ourselves," the managing editor Tom Conroy told Mediawatch.
NZOA had already raised the question: is it worth funding regional TV stations any more?
An independent review (PDF) it commissioned found the business cases of existing stations were weak and NZOA decided not to fund the local stations that still exist after this year.
Instead it asked for proposals for regional media content on multiple platforms targeting specific regions.
Last week it announced funding for four projects providing multi-media news in seven regions from its $1.3m regional media content fund.
Where's the money going?
Two of the four projects are backed by major news publishers. It's the first time they have won contestable public funding for their news.
$400,000 will go to a partnership for news in the mid and lower North Island. NZME - the publisher of The New Zealand Herald - and an independent multi-media company Very Nice Productions are calling it Local Focus. It’ll be published in a new regional section on the Herald's website.
The man in charge is former TV3 and Sky News journalist Alistair Wilkinson.
"I think what this shows is New Zealand on Air is acknowledging there are stories going untold in the regions," he told Mediawatch.
"We want to have people living in the regions. When I started in journalism many people cut their teeth in a regional post. But with the big changes in journalism in recent years, there are fewer of those opportunities available," he said.
He says the aim is to have journalists producing regular video reports, possibly as often as every two days.
"I want our videojournalists having close association with the NZME team. That said, I want them to uncover stories other people are not," he said.
Christchurch’s CTV has teamed up with local print publishing group Star Media to provide coverage from Kaikoura to South Canterbury, and west to Arthur’s Pass. This partnership also gets $400,000. Star Media has already experimented with online local streaming shows last year such as chat show The Daily Fix.
In the lower South Island, ODT publisher Allied Press will use its newspaper websites and its Dunedin TV station Channel 39 to carry content from video journalists covering Otago and Southland, Ashburton, Waitaki and Timaru, and across to the West Coast. The comany gets just under $400,000 for what it is calling Southern Media Hub.
The two already work together on channel north’s bilingual bulletins.
Is the new funding method a better way?
Channel North is a community television station in Whangarei, launched in 2008 - in partnership with a local school, local polytechnic and iwi radio station Ngati Hine FM. Its chair is Carol Peters, a former chair of the Regional Television Broadcasters Association wrote wrote a PhD on regional TV.
Channel North has been streaming on the internet since 2010. Carol Peters says its a useful tool, but she regrets that local TV stations can't be funded directly from next year.
"Whether (regional content) should be connected with mainstream places is questionable. What we're looking for is local connection," she says.
"Some really wonderful people have put their hearts and souls into similar operations and gone off burned out, tired and disillusioned because the idea of local people telling stories hasn't been treasured - not by legislation, not by policy and not by funding," she told Mediawatch.
She is grateful for funding received so far and she acknowledges that some local stations aren't widely watched, but that's not necessarily a reason not to back them.
"The participation in making community TV is really important. You're funding something more. In other countries this is valued - and recognised in broadcasting policy," says Carol Peters.