Last week, Duncan Greive wrote about the cancellation of ‘groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, super-diverse’ series Head High. Here the man who first conceived of the show explains the near-impossible task of creating a high-rating local drama on network TV.
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It is hard to admit, but I understand why Three didn’t commission a third season of Head High. This is a hard admission because the initial concept for the series was mine. It also signals the emergence of platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime as a part of the problem, and a huge part of the solution.
In 2014 I started a five-year stint as the director of content at Three. Part of the remit was to establish a new drama strategy. Outrageous Fortune and Westside had set the groundwork for Three as the dominant home for local drama and it was time for the next iteration. I wanted that to be inclusive of all New Zealand, diverse and positive. With rugby being so pivotal to our psyche and the growth in particular of 1st XV rugby, the germ of an idea formed: a family-based drama where rugby was central to the characters’ lives. In the hands of South Pacific Pictures’ Kelly Martin and Rachel Jean, Southdown High and St Isaac’s were born.
It took five years to get the first episode to screen. Making TV drama in New Zealand is hard.
Shows are developed, then funded, then produced, then post-produced, then marketed, and, finally, screened. Some shows rate, some don’t. Some make money for the network, some don’t. The cold hard fact is that in the traditional measure of success – TV ratings – Head High didn’t meet Three’s expectations. But it’s important to note the ratings don’t include the viewers who streamed the show via ThreeNow. By all accounts those numbers are good, very good even, and herein lies the core of the issue.
Most NZ-produced drama is funded like Head High: partially by the broadcaster – in this case Three/Discovery – and majority-funded by NZ On Air, the body that is a taonga for Aotearoa and a credit to the late 80s Labour government for establishing it. To be clear, without NZ On Air, there would be next-to-no scripted local drama or comedy on our screens. For the past 10 years NZ On Air has lacked any sustainable content funding increase. Production costs over that time have invariably risen and NZ On Air has had to spread its funds wider to accommodate the evolution of new content ideas and platforms, meaning the amount of premium drama it can fund is very limited. Although majority funded by NZ On Air, the commercial network contribution to local productions is still sizeable – and if you have a funded series that isn’t rating, you need to change.
But while change may make good business sense, what happens to a series like Head High that ticks all boxes for diversity and tells positive Māori stories? A series that is led by a cast whose diversity is ever-present, and has an increasing slice of its audience viewing online? What happens to these stories?
The way we consume content has changed dramatically in the past five years. The arrival of Netflix and then the continuous procession of services, including Amazon Prime, AppleTV+, and Disney+, changed the game; it gave us premium TV without interruption. TVNZ, Three and others now had to share their playground with a whole lot of new kids and those kids have now taken over the jungle gym. I mean, they’re cool to hang out with, but they also don’t sound like us, they certainly don’t identify as New Zealanders, and when it comes to storytelling they just aren’t that interested in hearing our stories. Go check out New Zealand movies and TV shows on any of these services. When you do find NZ content it’s kind of like walking into a United Video back in the day, where you headed past the New Releases to the dusty New Zealand cinematic library shelves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but how about some New Releases, how about some Head High?
None of these services have commissioned any New Zealand premium drama content directly for New Zealand audiences, and there is not a chance that they will unless change is forced upon them. Streaming services rely on big titles to bring in and keep subscribers. As much as I’d like to think Head High on Netflix would significantly increase subscription numbers in this territory, it won’t, for no other reason than our population isn’t significant enough to drive the subscribers required to cover the cost. New Zealand isn’t big enough commercially for them to make it work.
But if these streaming services want to operate here, surely there has to be a cultural cost of entry. Many countries have waved sticks in aid of protecting their production industries and their cultural identity. Just look over the pond: in Canberra earlier this year, actors Simon Baker, Bryan Brown and Marta Dusseldorp were among those asking the government for 20% local quotas on the streamers. It’s helped. Amazon has recently commissioned over $20m worth of Australian content. And before you “Lord of the Rings” me here, whānau, our stories aren’t – and shouldn’t be – just shots of forest and fauna. It should be the responsibility of Netflix and others to ensure they represent the audiences they serve and it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure they do so.
Locally, for the first time Head High proves this. The linear TV model for drama is becoming more challenged: drama is increasingly the domain of streaming, and if these services are going to take eyeballs away from New Zealand platforms then they should have a responsibility to represent the audiences they serve.
So, what happens next? We’ve actually already been here. In the late 90s the New Zealand music industry had a similar problem with commercial radio: the percentage of Kiwi music played was abysmally low, somewhere around the 3% mark. It was literally The Feelers and… The Feelers. The Labour government at the time waved the 20%-quota stick at commercial radio if there was no improvement. Together, commercial radio, the record industry, the New Zealand Music Industry Commission and NZ On Air worked to make change and self-imposed quotas on commercial radio happened. New Zealand music on commercial radio grew.
And then looked what happened. The 2000s gave us the hip hop revolution, led by Dawn Raid and Scribe. Anika, Bic and Brooke become household names. Blindspott gave us metal, and the D4 , Shihad and The Datsuns gave us rock. They were all played on commercial radio. By the end of 2020, New Zealand music airplay on commercial radio was near 21%. We now have artists with international recognition – mention Lorde, Benee, and Aldous overseas (when you can) and people know who you’re talking about. The stick-waving worked better than we ever could have hoped.
It’s now the streamers’ time to commit. If they don’t, we need to work out a way to protect our local production ourselves. Taxing the streamers and diverting that money directly to NZ On Air to bolster their contestable funding model? Well, that’s possible – this direct style of tax isn’t new. The precedent was set with a regional fuel tax diverted directly to Auckland roading.
South Pacific Pictures will continue to try and find a home for Head High, but that will take time and is by no means a certainty. But the free ride the international streamers are getting by launching their services here with no commitment to New Zealand storytelling needs to be challenged.
And before Trevor Mallard, speaker of the house, starts popping off again on Twitter about the travesty of Head High being cancelled, he may want to start the conversation internally with his government about how they can help. Because they certainly can.