My Life in TV is a weekly feature interview with a member of the television industry. This week, Alex Casey talked to Maria Mahony, head of programming at VOD startup (and Spinoff sponsor) Lightbox. //
I’ve talked to Maria a few times already, as the head honcho TV buyer at Lightbox, but we actually first met a few years back when she worked at dearly departed youth channel TVNZ U. I still remember the exact moment. She walked through the U Late studio (aka a couch in the TVNZ foyer), and introduced herself just as I was about to go on air with Guy Montgomery to talk about crappy movies.
Moments later, Guy threw a very small soccer ball off-camera to me. In a hilarious and stupid move, I lobbed it back to him on air. It hit one of the hanging studio lights, and then one of the two U Late cameras. I very was scared Maria was going to come out and yell at me. She didn’t. She’s lovely.
Fast forward a few years and here we are. She’s the head of programming at video on demand startup Lightbox (also The Spinoff’s lovely sponsor) – the big boss with the final say on what TV washes up on the online shore. I sat down and had a chat to her about her job calling the shots, and the magical formula she uses to figure out the television New Zealanders want to watch.
How would you describe your job as Head of Programming?
I was deal with international and domestic production houses, gathering the availability of shows that we could possibly buy. Then I go through and watch the ones that I don’t know, and watch the ones that suit the brand we want to be and the audience we want to have. It’s really important for us to have something in every genre.
The preliminary research that we did said that people loved to watch drama, of course, but it’s equally important to have things like factual programming and documentaries. Some people actually like watching those, some people just say that they want to watch them. There’s often a difference between what people say their preferences are and what they actually watch.
Once you have the shows on the platform like we do now, we can gather data about what people are actually watching. The next step is going back to the studios and showing them what is performing well and what isn’t. I am constantly in touch with studios, seeing what is coming out and how it fits with us. With the new shows like Better Call Saul and Vikings, it’s crucial for us to get it express. With every hour that they are out, that’s more and more time that people can watch them elsewhere.
How did you go about choosing the initial shows for Lightbox?
Our initial research piece was over 1000 people. We asked them how they watched, what they watched, and what they were willing to pay. Then we did smaller groups where we went into homes and people’s lounges to see how them and their families watched TV. We also looked at Nielsen ratings which is all based on linear TV watching. Obviously people absorb what’s playing on traditional television at the time, so we took that with a pinch of salt. We used another company who looks at online chatter and viewing across the world. They narrowed it down to New Zealand so we can see how people are responding here to the rest of the world.
With all that said, a lot of it is just gut feeling. For example, we bought Better Call Saul before it had even been made. It hadn’t even been written, but we knew it was just the right thing for us to get. Same with Outlander, we saw a 60 second trailer and just said yes. Sometimes you just can’t wait. Luckily, we’ve managed to get a lot of them right
Have there been any shows that have surprised you from the initial buying?
One huge surprise for Lightbox is the success of Friday Night Lights. It’s obviously very good, but it’s just amazing how many people have gone right back to the start of that series. Also Outlander, obviously with the huge following of the books, has consistently been in our most-watched shows since launch – and there’s only eight episodes of it.
There are some other shows I was so glad to get. I saw the pilot for Transparent and really liked it. It hasn’t necessarily been screening consistently well, but it’s one of those shows that I’m really happy to be associated with. It was critically acclaimed and full of the most beautiful actors, I really love it.
With those new unknown or risky shows, what is it that grabs you?
An old school trick we use at screenings is that if you’re talking to the person sitting next to you within the first five minutes of the show, it’s probably not that good. I look at how it’s written, what music they use, the actors, and make sure I know what else the writers and directors have worked on. Pilots are interesting because they are packed with information, they’re practically begging you to take them on. You have to take them with a grain of salt sometimes.
It’s like if you work for a radio station or a music channel. You don’t have to feel the same as the audience, you just have to know what the audience wants. I’m not scheduling for me, I’m scheduling for everyone else.
Are there any shows on Lightbox that were part of your own personal crusade?
Probably Better Call Saul was the biggest. There was so much conversation and negotiation around this, so many reasons not to do the deal. It was a huge push and I’m glad we made it happen. It’s our most watched show, just ahead of Outlander.
When you were growing up, were you a TV watching freak?
When I grew up in Sweden, my parents never had cable TV. I grew up with two channels and programming would start about 3pm. Before that it was just text onscreen. I loved the one hour of kids programming a day, but I wasn’t abnormally weird with TV.
When I moved to London I got a job for MTV, and my love affair with music and TV started. As a consumer, I had never thought about the people behind the camera – you never see the while big machine working behind it. It’s not necessarily glamorous, but it’s very exciting.
What was your role at MTV?
I started off working in the transmission library. So every promo, ad or music video was held on a separate tape, and you’d get a schedule sent through and have to send everything to go into the library. All manual stuff. Again, not the most glamorous job but a really good start in the industry. It’s really good to learn everything from the ground up. A year later I got into scheduling for the Scandinavian channels, and sorted everything aside from the music. Towards the end, that turned out to be quite a lot of content.
After that, I came over here and started working for Nickelodeon, and then for Comedy Central. I was acquiring shows and choosing what goes where.
Is it during this time that you became a bit of a TV expert? I imagine you’d absorb a lot just by osmosis.
Exactly, yeah. I don’t actually see myself as an expert though. The most important thing I learned from those jobs was just to respect your audience, and know exactly who your audience is. Sometimes you might not be an expert, but you’ve got to ask questions – especially here. Overseas figures don’t always work with New Zealand viewing habits. Perhaps the big dramas tend to match up, but factual and reality programming is very different.
And then you got into programming for TVNZ U?
Yeah, they brought me in for that. We knew we wanted to have a mostly reality and factual channel. It was an exciting chance to get in a whole lot of shows that we don’t see a lot of here, but there are a lot of. Things like action sports and Made in Chelsea. We decided to create themes for each night, to make it easier for scheduling and advertising. What was exciting was being able to try out ideas like that, there was a lot of freedom.
I recall the Made in Chelsea marathon as a roaring success. I am so proud to be the person who brought Made in Chelsea to New Zealand. And the live viewing with the U Live team felt like a whole new level of engagement for television. I miss it.
The U team just totally got it. It was a dream, it feels like I’ve been living a lot of dreams until someone just shuts it down. It’s so great to see Guy Montgomery and Tim Batt doing incredibly well with their podcast, and seeing Rose all over TV now.
So what actually happened to TVNZ U?
The usual changing of the guards. In the end, it is a business, and those sorts of decisions have to be made. TVNZ lost themselves some really amazing talent, I always think that when I see Rose and Guy and the rest of them out there now. We primed them and then let them go elsewhere, but I’m obviously I’m very happy for them.
When did Lightbox come onto the scene, was it a long time in the making?
Soon after the end of U, it was a signed off a year before launch in August 2014 so, a pretty quick turnaround. It was a dream, I was able to sit down with this huge list of shows and just tick them all.
What is your job like day to day? Is there a lot of TV watching involved?
There’s actually a lot of report writing. The glamorous side of the job is going to lunches and screenings and travelling overseas, but that’s only about three times a year. The rest of it is looking at what’s performing and what’s coming up, and pestering the studios for dates for shows.
How often do you get new shows in to watch?
Maybe a couple of shows a week. But there’s always hounding from studios about around 15 shows that I haven’t got round to watching at any one time. It’s exciting as well though, because we’ve had more and more local producers approaching us recently.
This was going to be my next question, about shows like Transparent that were Amazon originals. Are there any Lightbox originals in the works?
I would love to do something like that. But for the right reasons and with the right people. Some of those original series have been successful, but some of them have been not great. We are having some conversations though, put it that way.
Are there any TV shows you are loving at the moment?
I’ve really struggled at the moment. I’ve been dipping in and out of X Factor. Scandal is really good. On Lightbox, we don’t get the express episodes any earlier than the audience, so I’ve been watching Suits and Better Call Saul and Vikings along with everyone else.
I don’t want to be too poncey about shows. It’s like books, sometimes you want to read a biography, sometimes you want to read a shitty beach book. I heard someone the other day who was saying they felt so guilty because they really enjoyed Dance Moms. It’s okay. It’s fine to watch that.
Whether it’s high brow or low brow, as long as its entertaining and as long as you’re happy.
What a wonderful job you have.
People who have come out of studying media and business always ask me how I got into this, and I have to tell them it all came down to talking to a guy in a pub. That’s how I got into MTV. Of course it helps to know a lot, but a lot of it was about being somewhere at the right time.
Hit the pubs, basically.
Drinking is good for you, that’s my career advice.