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The Problem with NZ TV, part II: Comparing TVNZ with the BBC

Stop blaming TV commissioners for the quality of our local output, says Chris Hooper, who last year left TVNZ for a role at the BBC. It’s time to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. Part of an ongoing series assessing our publicly funded television. Read part one, covering the role of commissioners, here.

People look upon TVNZ as a dark and brooding fortress of telly. They quiver at the storm clouds gathering around its suspiciously huge and Goodnight Kiwi-less satellite dishes. They imagine an army of unblinking, soulless automatons inside shuffling down dark corridors, programmed to deliver repeats of Chuck Lorre comedies into eternity, oblivious to the feverish mob clamouring outside, jonesing for a hoon on another foul-mouthed, sexy masterpiece from the latest angry white nerd from HBO, or Amazon, or Netflix. But speaking as a former employee, the truth is less dystopian. And (hold onto your iPhones cos this might hurt a bit) the viewers aren’t exactly banging the door down for a fix of some esoteric Scandi-Noir.

Transparent (Lightbox)

Transparent (Amazon/Lightbox)

This can be a bitter pill to swallow for the average media-savvy man-about-Twitter: most people aren’t as enamored with the slow nuanced realism of Transparent or the truly extraordinary knitwear of Forbrydelsen. When you’re in that urbane, connected, early adopter set, when all your friends and everyone you follow online are gagging on the latest House of Cards, it’s hard to see yourself as a minority. In the US Mad Men would average a couple of million viewers per episode, compared to Grey’s Anatomy’s or Scandal’s 10 or 11 million. Sometimes critical acclaim tricks you into thinking your favourite show is massively popular, but good reviews don’t keep the heating on.

The truth is, HBOish programming on free to air TV in New Zealand (the kind of thing people usually mean when they say ‘why can’t we have nice things?’) has usually been a disappointing flop. When I started working in mainstream TV, one of the most useful lessons I taught myself was to let go of any judgement about what the majority enjoy (the immense popularity of Two And A Half Men versus the devastating demise of Happy Endings is a case in point; as is the fact that the wickedly brilliant Auckland Daze didn’t get a huge crowd when it transferred to TV ONE from OnDemand.) People would rather watch 2 Broke Girls than an autistic detective solving a shocking child murder in Icelandic, and that’s okay. Life can be hard and long and exhausting and you should be able to unwind with a knob joke in your spare time, shame-free.

Auckland Daze (TVNZ)

Auckland Daze (TVNZ)

With locally made drama in New Zealand, the stakes are high – it’s expensive to make and TV is a fiercely tough commercial business, so you have to commission work that is likely to appeal to lots of Kiwis in a market where a niche audience means only a handful of people. It might sting, but if you look to the UK or USA with their bloated populations, a non-mainstream audience (those 2 million domestically for Mad Men) can still be a big enough crowd to make ‘niche’ commercially viable. So of course the creative community want to make HBO-like shows exploring the devastating and miserable truth about the human condition; but it’s not what people tune into after a long hard shift in Countdown. Kiwis tend to like to keep it upbeat.

In the current political and financial context – having to make a profit for your government shareholder in an industry with one of the slimmest margins imaginable – it’s harder to take risks on unproven ideas, or totally unknown creative teams, or concepts not likely to grab the attention of a big crowd. And that is where public service television could step in.

In the discussion on this fine site (and here and here) I’ve seen anger directed at TV commissioners (season finale shock twist – the production community doesn’t always agree with the people who say no to their ideas) but I think the wider political and business context needs exploring. And I hate to be one of those left-wing bleeding hearts who blame everything on John Key, but *insert a thousand gifs of John Key eating a sausage here*.

Step Dave (TVNZ)

Step Dave (TVNZ)

Traditionally, there is a reason state broadcasters exist and that is to deliver six-part documentaries on the history of 18th century agricultural techniques – along with other programming that isn’t broadly populist but experimental, niche or challenging. They provide platforms for stories which give a voice to otherwise under-represented groups, stories otherwise untold. When those stories are good, they can be really good.

We used to have a bit of that mandate in New Zealand, and NZOA still tinkers round the edges of off-peak with some funding. But there’s a reason why it’s not front and centre, and that’s because the National Government cancelled the Charter, removed the funding for TVNZ 6 and 7, and gave the state broadcaster a new raison d’etre – to simply return an annual profit to the Crown. Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, that’s either extremely fiscally sensible or horrifyingly short-sighted cultural vandalism. If you fall into the latter camp, I’d point your anger towards the Beehive.

When you live and die by the programming yield (how much profit you make on a series minus how much it costs to make) then it’s suicide to invest in something that might just get an audience of 1200 passionate graphic designers in Wellington but leaves the network staff out on the curb with boxes of Post-Its and all the staplers they could grab on the way out.

Because if you want programming that’s not aimed squarely at a populist audience, stories which are experimental or risky or left field, you can’t rely on commercial enterprise to deliver that in a country the size of New Zealand without creating an environment where lower ratings are an acceptable payoff for the cultural benefit. And that agenda is set by the Government.

When I left New Zealand I started working for the BBC so I feel pretty well versed in the running of national broadcasters. I love that the BBC is genuinely able to deliver something for everyone – from massive entertainment shows like Strictly Come Dancing through to brilliant little gems like the recent London Spy on BBC Two, or The Detectorists on BBC Four. The principle is quite beautiful – everyone puts a bit in (the annual licence fee) and then gets something out that’s tailor made for their eyeballs.

London Spy (BBC)

London Spy (BBC)

Debate is currently raging in the UK about what the BBC is for, something which happens every 10 years when the Charter is renewed, a process that sets out in writing the BBC’s purpose, and which becomes enshrined in law when it’s actually signed by the Queen. The beauty of the process is that the public has skin in the game: the public consultation was overwhelmed with responses from people wanting to have their say about what the BBC should be doing and making. And how lovely is that? People care about EastEnders and David Attenborough documentaries and the World Service and the Teletubbies. Something for everyone. Utopian, right? (And naturally producers still target the commissioners for a lack of imagination.)

The BBC is obviously uniquely funded and I’d never suggest we could or should mirror that model or unpick the commercial mandate of TVNZ. But maybe there’s a middle ground.

For me, the answer lies in challenging the Government on the role and purpose of state television. I think a strong independent public service broadcaster is important to a culture: it should be about uniting the country around significant events or entertaining spectacles (and, hello, did you bawl your way through the Shortland Street premiere this year? Because I did all the way over in London), but there should also be scope for stories which wouldn’t otherwise be televised. There’s a purpose in that, a calling, that’s bigger and more important than just turning a dollar.

It always seemed a bit mad that New Zealand television’s production money is held by a separate funding body. Adding more layers of approval and PowerPoint presentations doesn’t seem the best way to connect funding with storytellers to me. Why not funnel a proportion of NZOA’s budget directly into TVNZ each year as an innovation fund? Allow decisions to be made more nimbly, and give some financial assurance to programmers planning the months and years ahead.

Why shouldn’t TVNZ keep its profits and invest it back into new local programme-making? The content might not all make it to Monday nights at 8.30 – some of it might be tailored for OnDemand. But innovate, experiment, tell more Kiwi stories in different ways. Unearth new voices. If that’s what’s being called for, the only way to do that is to create a fiscal environment that allows creative risks.

So speaking as a deprogrammed, unblinking former TVNZ drone, allow me to lift the lid on what it’s like inside that walled monolith in Auckland. The people inside really, really like TV. That’s kind of it – they’re embarrassing geeks, talking excitedly about the next big thing like your average adolescent fanboy. The people I know there are passionate, whip-smart and funny, and they care really deeply about the audience. The commissioners are in love with their characters and stories, and would fight you to the death for them. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever worked – challenging and fast-paced and fun. No one’s sitting around striving for mediocrity.

So if we’re looking for more shows that leave an indelible mark on the national culture or raise questions about what it means to be a Kiwi in the 21st Century, there’s a man you could start with in Wellington who’s busy colouring in a new flag that cost the equivalent of 52 hours of TV drama. Every little bit helps.

Chris Hooper would like to stress that these are his personal views and not necessarily those of TVNZ. He left TVNZ in April 2015 and his job there did not involve interacting with NZ On Air.


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