RNZ (& others) seek Fountain of Youth

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Spanish conquistador Ponce de León never admitted in writing that he had sought the Fountain of Youth. Perhaps he was trying to avoid potential embarrassment…or he knew it was sheer folly.

The Caribbean explorer could provide an object lesson or two for New Zealand media as RNZ digs a hole for itself in search of the elusive spring.

The most obvious lesson was that, if Ponce de León did go looking for a cure for ageing, he never found it. If he had, he would presumably still be dining out on it. The second lesson is that the quest can be full of ironies: He was searching in what is now the retirement capital of the United States – Florida.

RNZ’s decision to effectively axe its Concert network in favour of a new ‘youth-oriented’ radio service is the latest in a long list of moves by legacy media to capture a part of the market that it has lost or, more significantly, never had.

This search for the elusive ‘youth market’ has not only become a driving force for mainstream media but a very public rallying cry to demonstrate that they are progressive and proactive in ‘future-proofing’ themselves with the audience that has besotted the bright young things of advertising agencies. They stand to be embarrassed on both counts.

The mistake they are making lies in believing that every medium (and all are now active in several) should seek the same audience. This leads them to either create content mixes that are at odds with their mainstream market or, as is the case with RNZ, to sacrifice an entire core service to provide a platform aimed at a different – perhaps phantom – audience.

In the process, legacy media are sacrificing audiences that are arguably more ‘valuable’ than the one they are seeking. That flies in the face of logic.

Newspapers have largely failed to attract younger buyers in spite of pandering to their need to be entertained. Radio has segmented to meet the needs of various audiences but has created an overcrowded market. The two broadcast television networks dumbed-down rather than risk boring that elusive younger audience.

Now RNZ is seeking to ‘meet the needs’ of  18-34 year olds with a new music brand. The level of priority was sufficient for it to plan to commandeer Concert’s FM frequency and reduce the classical and jazz network to little more than elevator music after all its hosts and producers were fired. Yesterday, the government rescued the FM frequency for Concert but nothing seems to have altered RNZ’s determination to move its eggs from a culturally significant service into a brightly bedecked new basket.

Why?

It will be moving into an already heated part of the market with three established brands – The Edge, The Rock, and ZM – none of which has an average audience of more than 35,000 (and that is the total 10-plus audience).

The Edge is the top rating station in the 18-34 age group in  terms of weekly reach. What is second? As long ago as 2017, that place was being claimed not by ZM but by music streaming service Spotify. Even the reach of broadcast radio networks is being enhanced – in some cases doubled – by streaming through the international service that has ambitions to be the ‘Netflix of audio’.

If RNZ is seeking the Fountain of Youth, it is more likely to find it in digital streaming services than on the wireless (as my late father – and the founders of RNZ’s defunct ‘youth’ website – once called it).

Likewise, TVNZ and MediaWorks should recognise that only certain demographics are comfortable sitting ‘in front of the telly’. They should use on-demand digital services to secure a younger audience.

I know young people do not read newspapers. I know this because I used to survey my university media classes and almost invariably the only people who admitted to reading that morning’s edition were grey-haired ‘mature’ students. Print publishers, too, should concentrate on their digital assets to attract the 18-54 market.

That is not to say they should walk away from newsprint and broadcasting. Legacy media will have finite lives but there is life in them yet. More than 20 per cent of the population is aged between 55 and 74 and they command a third of New Zealand’s disposable spending. Surely, it makes sense to utilise their preferred media to reach them and to use the advancing digital tools of the Information Age to build future audiences? My generation, and those before it, are happy to be presented with a range of material that professionals had selected to meet our wants and needs. My son – and certainly his sons – are adamant that they get what they ask for, not what someone else thinks they might want or need.

Consultants consult

The announcement last week of plans for a new public media entity to incorporate the resources of RNZ and Television New Zealand was hardly news. RNZ political editor Jane Patterson had done a very good job of working her political sources to leak significant parts – but not all – of the proposal.

I am constrained in what I can say about the proposal because I was an advisor to the Chief Executives Working Group which, in conjunction with the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, prepared the Cabinet paper for Communications Minister Kris Faafoi . My role was completed last December.

I don’t believe I will be in breach of my obligations to the ministry if I make the following personal observations:

  • The requirements of a Cabinet paper are rigorous but also constraining. Approval in principle was only the first stage and detailed work starts now.
  • The ‘business case’ that Cabinet requires before the proposal can be advanced cannot be simply a financial exercise. Its governance structure, operational framework, and impacts should be outlined to fully assess ‘the business’,
  • In order for that to happen, the consultants charged with providing the business case (PWC) should consult widely – and that means beyond RNZ, TVNZ and government ministries. The broader media industry should be consulted.
  • The proposal must have public buy-in. PWC should actively seek the views of groups such as Better Public Media, which not only has a significant viewpoint but also access to a considerable body of international research.

Yes, I have a vested interest in the proposal. But so do all New Zealanders. It IS time for our media structures to change and, as far as this plan is concerned, we at the beginning of the process, not the end.

Shock Horror!

No, it wasn’t the story that Lord Lucan may have been found ‘living pseudonymously’ (a wonderful phrase) in Western Australia. Nor was it the revelation that the person who tracked him down was none other than the son of the nanny allegedly murdered by the wayward peer. No, what really filled me with shock and horror was the announcement last week by the UK Press Gazette that “the last great Fleet Street mystery” may finally have been solved. The thought that mystery-solving Red Top hacks would no longer have an excuse to jet off to exotic locations on the basis of half-baked rumours was almost too much to bear.

— Gavin Ellis

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