We can expect more political satire and comment in the media at election time next year- and more ads across more media from political parties, thanks to two recent decisions which have largely gone under the radar.
Since the 1960s, time has been set aside on radio and TV by law for political parties to set out their stall in statements at the start and the end of each election period.
The Electoral Commission decides how much time and taxpayers' money should be allocated to each party for these opening and closing addresses. The Broadcasting Act obliges state-owned RNZ and TVNZ to make prime time available for free.
After reviewing the 2014 election, Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee reported that TVNZ was not happy with that any more:
“Television New Zealand submits that it no longer sees itself as a public national broadcaster. It said that it has moved to being a commercial operator and should not be obliged to provide free time for broadcasting. It suggests Parliament TV would be a more appropriate channel to host the opening and closing addresses.”
- Justice and Electoral Committee report 2015
The committee did not agree with that, but it did say political parties should be able to choose how they advertise or target specific voters.
Now it seems the parties - and TVNZ - will get what they want.
Freeing up - and bumping up - the budget
Broadcasting minister Amy Adams has said a bill will be introduced to Parliament to allow parties to spend their allocation online and the total budget will rise to $3.6 million.
“The addresses are an outdated format and declining audience numbers show they are not effective at engaging voters,” Ms Adams said.
The New Zealand Herald seemed to agree.
“Dwindling audience numbers has led to the scrapping of political parties' free general election broadcasts," the paper said.
“TVNZ's audience numbers for the 2014 opening addresses were down by 25 percent,” said RNZ.co.nz.
Overstating the stats
A slump as big as that between elections seemed to prove people were losing interest, but TVNZ’s submission did not compare the figures between elections in 2011 and 2014.
It compared the audiences for the election addresses in 2014 with audiences for its own regular programming on the same nights over the preceding six weeks.
Dominion Post political editor Tracey Watkins pointed out in her paper that The All Blacks were playing the Wallabies on Eden Park - and live on Sky - when the opening addresses screened on TV One.
Even so, the opening statements attracted an average audience of 239,000.
About 279,000 watched the closing addresses on 19 September, and even if that included all of the people who were watching the opening addresses, that was still more than one in 10 of the people who eventually cast a vote in the election.
However, TVNZ plainly wants to make more money from adverts by screening something else.
“This placed TVNZ at a serious commercial disadvantage to its competitors. Viewers who turn off during prime time generally do not turn back on later in the evening. This impacts on the desirability of commercial placements throughout the three evenings, and therefore - on revenue.”
- TVNZ submission to the Justice and Electoral Committee
More to come
When the law changes to do away with the addresses on TV and radio, the expanded budget will almost certainly mean more taxpayer funded political advertising online next year.
"Online communication enables parties to target much more precisely because there is so much more data now that you can analyse the behaviour of people," political marketing expert Jennifer Lees-Marshment of Auckland University told TVNZ 1 News.
In the Dominion Post last weekend, Ms Watkins said 2017 would be “the Facebook election”. Political ads circulating online would be more effective than ads on TV, she said.
That means political broadcasts many people chose not to watch on TV in the past would be channeled into online advertising that’s harder to avoid. The ads will target voters online, even if they do not want them - and even though, as a taxpayer, they paid for them.
Claire Robinson is an expert in political communication at Massey University. She is currently in the US watching unrestrained campaigning playing out in the media there.
She told Mediawatch she argued for such a change after previous elections, but gave up "because she thought this government was not interested".
Professor Robinson said TV and radio addresses were little use to the parties and a poor use of public money. They were also unfair to minor parties whose addresses at the end of the hour-long broadcasts were only seen by the small fraction of the audience which tuned in throughout.
"The amount of taxpayers money that parties spend to make an opening address is totally out of proportion to the very small number of potential voters. Moreover, they are TVNZ watchers or RNZ listeners who are, in all likelihood, already going to vote. They are not the people at greatest risk of being disengaged in politics - who the messages really need to be getting to." she told Mediawatch.
Also, with the trend towards more advance voting, political parties also needed to get their messages out earlier in the campaign when voters were making up their minds, she said.
Green light for more comment and satire?
Last week, the Court of Appeal made a decision which could also change the game during next year’s election campaign. It upheld a High Court decision which overturned a controversial Electoral Commission ruling in 2014 on the now-notorious satirical song and video 'Planet Key':
The Electoral Commission had considered the song “an election programme” which should be subject to the election campaign advertising restrictions.
'Planet Key' could not be played on the radio sold or hosted online without approval and endorsement from a political party attached. Mediawatch even had to ask for Electoral Commission permission to play a snippet of it in a report about the matter at that time.
Last week’s Appeal Court judgment said 'Planet Key' would have been more widely heard in 2014 but for the Electoral Commission’s intervention. The Justice and Electoral Committee’s review of the 2014 election also urged the government to rethink restrictions on “satirical, humorous, and creative” election programmes for broadcast.
More entertaining elections?
As things stand, the Broadcasting Act effectively prohibits what are deemed to be "election programmes" unless they are paid for from the funds specifically allocated to political parties by the Electoral Commission.
That has made TV and radio in New Zealand pretty much "political advert free territory," Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said on pundit.co.nz.
Veteran political journalist Richard Harman said on his website politik.co.nz that: “Coupled with the abolition of the opening and closing addresses, the Appeal Court’s decision will free up broadcasting to offer a more entertaining approach to politics during election campaigns.”
It could also mean we get floods of politically-inspired satire and comment at election time next year from people operating outside political parties - alongside more ads from the parties themselves across more media.
"It seems likely we're going to get a lot more political advertising on our TV and radio stations in 2017," Professor Geddis concluded.