While TVNZ 1 has become a reinvented juggernaut lately, TVNZ 2 has languished. 2021 might be the start of its turnaround – fuelled by an unlikely smash, writes Duncan Greive.
Celebrity Treasure Island has been an unexpected TV jewel of the delta outbreak, a reality game show with seemingly low stakes that gave a fearful and often locked-down nation a much-needed dose of escapism. But along the way it became something much more, too: a vision of modern Aotearoa.
The show embraced te reo and the Ngāti Kuri iwi, in whose rohe it was shot. It featured a super-diverse cast with representation of Māori, Pacific, immigrant and LGBTQ communities and ages spanning 20s to 60s. Not only that, but it allowed those identities to create conversation, but did not define them so tightly that it flattened the individuals involved. This is the upside of these new epic reality productions: you get to know the cast members very intimately as individuals.
It did all this with humour and emotion, and without ever seeming remotely worthy. In fact, few shows to screen this year will live up to screen funder NZ on Air’s “our stories, our voices” slogan quite so comprehensively – despite the show not having been publicly funded.
Yet all that good cultural stuff doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t rate. On that front, it delivered massively for TVNZ 2: an average of 296,000 watched each of its 27 episodes, with over 350,000 watching the extraordinary finale on Wednesday night. These are big numbers for linear TV – pricey dramas like Head High and The Panthers have pulled less than half that number.
To put it bluntly though, TVNZ 2 needed it. The channel is one of three run by the state broadcaster, and for a long time felt like its energy centre and heart. Known for many years as TV2 and powered by the 7pm juggernaut of Shortland Street, it targets the 18-49 demographic so coveted by advertisers. The 90s and 00s were its heyday, with a mix of local and imported reality productions and mostly American sitcoms filling primetime, and giving it a great rivalry with Three.
TVNZ 1 had massive ratings, driven by enormous legacy viewership for the 6pm news and Holmes. But the audience was older, more set in their ways and it lacked the sparkle of the younger channel.
Then the digital revolution happened. The natural audience for TVNZ 2 started to change its behaviour, adding social media to its mix, then YouTube, then streaming giants like Netflix. This swiftly eroded TVNZ 2’s ratings – NZ on Air’s audience survey showed it plummeting from 27% daily usage to 14% in a few short years.
This impacted its natural position as the state’s media centre of younger New Zealand audiences. Losing its grip on them presented a cultural and moral problem for the government as its sole shareholder: suddenly it had a relative embarrassment of platforms heavily utilised by older (and thus more Pākehā) audiences, in RNZ, RNZ Concert and TVNZ 1, while its only younger audience platform – aside from the brilliant but petite Re: – was declining fast. This is in part what has driven its “Strong Public Media” proposal to merge TVNZ and RNZ, which is drifting into 2022.
In response, TVNZ did something counterintuitive – it poured energy into TVNZ 1. The channel was reinvigorated with new branding, the return of sports and a clear desire to play a leading role in the big national project of becoming a more pluralist, tolerant and diverse nation which respects tangata whenua and Te Tiriti. TVNZ OnDemand was also given huge investment, partly in technology, but particularly in big, often exclusive shows.
The strategy worked. TVNZ 1, aided in part by the pandemic’s emphasis on news, has become the most trusted brand in media, according to NZ on Air's survey. And TVNZ OnDemand is the only NZ-based video on demand platform at scale, with more than triple the audience of the next-largest ad-supported local platform – an advantage which will pay dividends for years to come.
Where does that leave TVNZ 2 though? The channel has felt a little lost, essentially replaced by TVNZ OnDemand as the favourite child of the venerable TVNZ 1. It almost looked like its owner had accepted managed decline as the only outcome for TVNZ 2, a moribund place where costs must be controlled and the bleeding kept under control.
This year, it finally hinted at another plan. Shamelessly cribbing from the successful Three playbook, it went really big on multi-night local reality TV, with a smattering of local comedy in the mix. It had a faint air of desperation, but was at least a major investment (this was helped in some ways by having no other alternative: the pandemic created production havoc overseas, meaning TVNZ had more money and time to play with than usual).
The first half of the year was not good. Shooting full seasons of The Bachelorette and the The Bachelor at double speed gave us two rushed, uninvolving shows. Then a much-anticipated reboot of Popstars fell flat, drawing an average of just 118,000 viewers.
It left Celebrity Treasure Island with a huge amount riding on it. And it really delivered, hooking in big linear audiences and creating that mythical watercooler (read: Zoom while waiting for others to arrive) conversation, and minting or further elevating huge stars in the likes of Lance Savali, Edna Swart and the winner Chris Parker. It wasn't just linear either, CTI was an on-demand smash – recording over 175,000 streams a week and a total viewership of 125,000. The latter number is second only to the BBC smash Vigil for TVNZ OnDemand this year, an extraordinary feat for a local production.
Aided by big audiences for MasterChef Australia, CTI has helped right the commercial ship for TVNZ 2. But more than that, its success is crucially timed going into the potential merger. With Kevin Kenrick leaving after a truly extraordinary decade plus in charge, there is a succession drama going on behind the scenes at TVNZ, just as the government decides who will ultimately hold the whip hand with its new combined media entity.
TVNZ 2 having a big, shiny hit which manages to be both self-funded and capture the socio-cultural zeitgeist dead centre is a big help in TVNZ's already strong case to be the dominant party in whatever a merged entity looks like.
Our media environment is in flux right now. The news is filled with stories about the horrors happening on Facebook, rampant social media-fuelled misinformation has generated devastating vaccine hesitancy and there's a huge antitrust advertising case against Google. Despite all this, from both public and private sector there remains an imperative to both reach younger audiences and be in a brand-safe environment. Which is another reason TVNZ 2’s fortunes reviving comes at a crucial moment.
While linear television will never be the force it was, a big local hit straddling linear and on-demand is a really big deal to the state broadcaster. The unassuming pirate show has the potential to rescue one of our biggest media properties.