The New Zealand media are presently going through their traditional orgy of 'looking back' on 2007 - but this 'reflection' has not extended as far as the media scrutinising itself.

A new and worrying development has emerged within the New Zealand media this year and that has been the purchase of an increasing number of media companies by private equity firms. These companies have no interest in the media in itself - all they want is the best return possible on their money, more bangs for their buck. They could of equally have invested in a company making baked beans.

What we are witnessing is the further commercialisation of an already chronically commercialised New Zealand media which is owned by a group of owners who could comfortably fit inside a small closet - with room to spare.

The most prominent case this year has been the purchase of Canwest's seventy percent stake in Mediaworks (which owns TV3 and TV4 and a radio network) by the Australian-based private equity investor Ironbridge Capital. It paid $386 million for Canwest's share. In October Ironbridge went on to secure 100 percent ownership through its shelf company HT Media.

Ironbridge also owns one of New Zealand's biggest retirement home chains, Qualcare Group Holdings, which runs sixteen retirement centres throughout the country. It also bought the waste disposal company, Envirowaste in December 2006.

Typically equity investment firms like Ironbridge invest in a company for no more than five years.

The problem for media companies is that corporate raiders like Ironbridge want to quickly secure short term profits so that the value of the company, in the financial books at least, is significantly increased. They then can sell the company for a big profit.

To make such quick profits means cutting back on operations that are deemed to be 'unnecessary' and 'expensive'.

In the case of Canwest we could well see the trimming back of its already minimal news services - and these news services could well become increasingly more tabloid, geared to meet the demands of ratings and advertisers

We are perhaps seeing the first signs of this with TV3's new venture into breakfast television, Sunrise.This programme has eschewed serious news analysis for easy interviews, profiles of celebrities, movie and book reviews - and, of course, a whole lot of sport.

The move of private equity companies into the New Zealand media parallels developments in the United States where an increasing number of media and communications companies are being purchased by private equity firms.

This has prompted two Democrat senators, John Dingella and Ed Markey, to ask the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the implications of the increasing private equity involvement in the United States media.

Dingell and Markey questioned whether new private equity owners might focus on "cutting costs, increasing revenues, and the ultimate resale" of the media or communications company and that this had implications for the role of the media in United States society.

Here in New Zealand its beginning to happen without questions being asked - significantly the corporate-owned media itself remains silent on the issue.


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