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Lionel Wellington as Tai & Jayden Daniels as Mana in Head High (Photo: South Pacific Pictures/supplied)
Lionel Wellington as Tai & Jayden Daniels as Mana in Head High (Photo: South Pacific Pictures/supplied)

BusinessOctober 14, 2021

Head High is groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, super-diverse – and cancelled

Lionel Wellington as Tai & Jayden Daniels as Mana in Head High (Photo: South Pacific Pictures/supplied)
Lionel Wellington as Tai & Jayden Daniels as Mana in Head High (Photo: South Pacific Pictures/supplied)

It’s a decision which reveals a number of knotty issues in our pop culture landscape, says Duncan Greive.

Among television genres, serialised drama stands alone. It’s the most discussed, the most expensive, the highest stakes. As a result, dramas invariably have a lot riding on them – for some involved, it will be the biggest and best-resourced production of their lives. And while most shows only get a season or two, those involved sometimes let themselves imagine becoming an Outrageous Fortune – a show which runs and runs, and allows everyone involved to stretch and evolve.

Head High looked like that show for Miriama McDowell (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) and Tim Worrall (Tūhoe). Set in two neighbouring schools in South Auckland, one private and the other public, modelled after Kings and Ōtahuhu, it centred around a whānau with a Māori mum (played by McDowell) and Pākehā dad (Craig Hall) raising kids through the aftermath of a tragedy. In some ways it was small and domestic by comparison to the hyperbolic standards of many local dramas, but that was intentional. These were meant to be real lives that viewers recognised themselves in.

It also very deliberately set out to correct for an uncomfortable truth. Many of our major dramas over the decades have had some outward diversity in a few key roles, but further down the casting table that dissipated. In crew and in writer’s rooms, it’s been worse still. Head High was different. I had McDowell and Worrall on The Fold, my media podcast, this week, and each spoke passionately about the diversity of their production, about the capacity it built among those involved.

Thus it very much fit with some broader goals increasingly common to local screen production lately, and to NZ on Air, the funding body tasked with facilitating it:

  • To tell stories more reflective of the full range of life in Aotearoa
  • For those shows to be made by a more diverse group than has historically been the case, particularly for major drama
  • To create series which reflect an experience which feels uniquely and specifically of this motu and thus might travel beyond it

Head High did all that while also gathering genuine buzz and strong reviews, including my own. It had a second season, which finished just a couple of weeks ago, also well-reviewed and with an initial blaze of publicity. Then, quite abruptly, it was cancelled.

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Speaking to Worrall and McDowell you get a strong sense of the hurt they’re feeling. The show meant a great deal to them, and felt like it had a lot further to run. They also say Three, the network that screened the show and then ultimately cancelled it, failed the production in multiple ways. These include failing to post an episode on-demand at the scheduled time, and being locked out of a folder of social media assets meaning the show was effectively without promotion for part of its run.

I approached Three for comment, and they declined to address the substance of Worrall and McDowell’s claims, but said Three “remain committed to delivering local content as part of the future growth of our business”.

Where to from here for Head High?

Shows don’t normally come back from this. While in the US it is increasingly common to switch networks, or head from linear to streaming, there is little tradition of it here (The Spinoff’s own second season of Alice Snedden’s Bad News, which started on TVNZ, is a notable exception). The reasons for this are complex, partly due to networks having their own competitive dynamic, partly the stench of failure which gets on any cancelled project, and partly the way NZ on Air funds a limited number of big productions for each network, so by picking up another project you’re effectively reducing your ability to commission one of your own.

All this should count against Head High, but if any show has a shot at a second life, it’s this one. Not only for all those public-good reasons listed above, but because it seems to fit with TVNZ’s burgeoning desire to be deeply involved in the big, unwieldy project of reimagining the country. (Some might baulk at the idea of TV channel doing this, but why not own it?). A real, complex and positive Māori story for a mass audience feels like exactly the kind of show the new TVNZ would champion. What’s more, the existing two seasons give it a streaming heft which fits its strategy to lean into local productions and fill out its OnDemand platform.

It’s still a long shot, but Head High has a shot. The bigger question its cancellation raises is the future of the current commissioning model. Head High was, according to Worrall and McDowell, cancelled by Three’s new owners, Discovery. Effectively, they say, by an Australian working out of Sydney, with Three’s long-time commissioner having recently finished up in her role. The show’s creatives say the decision was made because it didn’t rate well enough on linear, but that it was performing well on streaming (Three declined to address the reason for cancellation in its statement).

Streaming is both the best place to meet a younger audience, and the worst place for an ad-supported network to make money. This fact is an increasing source of tension for NZ on Air, which can only fund what platforms put forward for funding, creating a skew, particularly for bigger budgets, toward productions which perform well on linear, which is where Aotearoa’s oldest, whitest audiences are found. These are legitimate audiences, of course – but NZ on Air’s own research reveals how much behaviour has changed for the younger and more diverse younger half of our populace, which remains in what might be called a content funding deficit compared to linear TV audiences.

In any case, what it boils down to is a show which had a large array of social and cultural benefits being cancelled from off-shore for want of a few thousand viewers on one particular – and fading – medium.

Toward the end of the podcast we talked about some of the questions this raises. Discovery is known for kinetic reality and factual programming – think Mythbusters or The Deadliest Catch. Is this a signal that it is moving Three away from drama and towards its core business? This would be a major departure for the network that brought us Outrageous Fortune. A spokesperson for Three said in a statement that local drama remains part of its 2022 planning, but part of Discovery’s rationale for purchasing Three, a loss-making channel at the bottom of the world, was surely that it could save money by putting some of its programming on air here, while also potentially taking New Zealand productions to the world.

This is a good and logical corporate strategy – and exciting for a different part of our production sector – but it would complicate an already difficult scenario for our cultural funders. Would TVNZ assume an ever-greater share of drama budgets, or NZ on Air itself become even more activist in commissioning (which is already happening to an extent)? Some in the industry advocate for a major neutral platform, which might be a partial solve, but who runs and commissions for that would remain a source of tension.

Behind all this lurks the other big unsolved issues of our screen sector: the role of the Film Commission in a streaming world, what to do with gaming (the biggest cultural industry in the world by far, but one we have almost no public funding or incentive strategy for), the TVNZ-RNZ merger, and whether we should pivot to funding shows for export markets to try to bring more investment into this country.

Head High cannot hope to solve all this – but through its cancellation, you can see many of the long-running issues of our screen world. Whatever its fate, those will need to be addressed for this sector to truly show all it can be for Aotearoa.

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