Duncan Greive talks about television’s past and future with Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells as they launch WatchMe – the most exciting birth in a year of TV deaths.
Some time in September Matt Heath got in touch, asking if I wanted to have lunch with him and Jeremy Wells. Who wouldn’t? We went and drank beer and ate Japanese food in Ponsonby. The pair told me that they were starting an online VOD platform with NZME, and asked if I’d like to write about it. Of course I did! Those idiot/savants getting the wheel of a TV venture – who wouldn’t want to watch that happen?
I never really got the chance. The Spinoff ate the rest of my year. But I did check in with them periodically, finding them underslept but exhilerated by the freedom of the project. One time we got beers in the central city with a young comedian they were interested in working with. Wells and Heath were in commissioning mode, but struggling to articulate just how easy it was to get something made with them.
“We’ve got this budget to make three $5000 pilots a month,” said Heath. “We’re looking for something that you can be fucked putting some effort into.”
The comedian, familiar with the torturous process of getting television made with networks started to ask about documentation and budgets – key to getting to the point when your idea could be turned down at traditional TV companies. Heath looked pained. Most people with good ideas, he explained, “they can’t explain it.”
“[NZME] might ask you for a budget,” said Wells. “Just write some numbers down.” Just some numbers. They didn’t really need to be connected to anything.
Of course, it’s easy when you’re dealing with $5000, and an experiment. Quite a different thing when you’re spending many multiples of that and tasked with maintaining an extremely precarious audience, rather than building one from scratch. At the same time though, what WatchMe represented sounded thrilling: a startup home for video, low (but not no) budget – but with Big Media backing.
More than that, it was a chance to break the commissioning strangelhold for NZ On Air. For too long a tiny handful of people’s whims have controlled what gets commissioned at our two-and-a-half commercial networks. They had tightly controlled demographics which made making original and daring television – the kind Wells and Heath and others made a decade or so ago, and variants of which have taken over the medium this past decade – incredibly difficult.
WatchMe is small, but its key people – Heath, Wells and the channel’s equivalent of a network exec, Cameron Death – have an openness to new ideas which is bracing by comparison to the relatively staid world of broadcast TV.
I caught up with the three of them in November, just after the channel launched. We met at Odettes, the flash restaurant in CityWorks on the city fringe. It was a blazing hot day, and the trio were finishing their meal, already a couple of bottles of chardonnay deep. Yes, chardonnay – Heath in particular is one of the world’s more unlikely winesnobs, disdaining New Zealand’s product as too unsophisticated for his finely-honed palette. Given the choice, he only drinks the French stuff.
He and Wells started to tell me the story of WatchMe. It sounded like Deliverance-meets-Back of the Y, and involved Fiordland, accounting software, nudity, abandonment and drug use. It was funny – but I wanted to know what really happened, so, after a while, I interrupted the story.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Full disclosure: The Spinoff has a content supply arrangement with the New Zealand Herald, which shares a parent company with WatchMe.
On WatchMe’s origins:
Duncan: Is any part of this story true?
Jeremy: It’s true, but what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to replace Fiordland National Park with Remuera; and the Burma trail with a piñata.
Matt: And the handcuffs with like five bottles of buttery chard, and you start to get closer to the truth.
Duncan: What about at the company level – what’s [NZME CEO] Jane Hastings’ role in all of this?
Matt: We’ve all been working in different areas of TV and it’s like, so we’re employed by this company, we’ve all got the skills; so how about let’s utilise those skills to do something that NZME wants to do, which is vision.
You’ve got to say it’s pretty cool to have production money to make shows that are what they are. There’s been no ‘you can’t do that show’. There’s been a lot of trust, and I think that’s a lot to do with Jane Hastings; she’s excited by things, excited by projects.
Jeremy: And we were lucky because I think the timing was right. Timing and luck means a lot; it’s worth a lot. Luckily local comedy commissioning, less and less local comedies are being commissioned, and it’s not like there’s not the same amount of people willing or wanting to make comedy; and it’s not that probably the ideas are less than they were say 10 or 15 years ago, in fact probably some of the ideas are probably better.
Matt: But if either me or Jeremy were trying to make the shows we made 10 years ago, there’s no way they’d go ahead now; there’d be no opportunity, there’d be no avenue.
Duncan: I want to talk about the state of commissioning at the networks. It that seems to be that a decade ago most of the people you’re working with at WatchMe were off on their own making this weird stuff, and it was playing at a time when you wanted to play on a mainstream network. Then suddenly that very New Zealand strain of serialist humour just vanished.
Jeremy: I think that coincided with a whole lot of economic reality. And also probably a change in Government as well, because as you know TVNZ kind of changes; it’s a political football. I think during that time – the 2000s – it was just a golden time. The Labour Party was just throwing money at broadcasting, and there were hip hop tours going on.
Duncan: Boost Mobile!
Jeremy: And essentially you’d get a dog doing a shit on the ground and they’d give you $50,000 to go and shoot that. Good times. Golden times for broadcasting.
Matt: Especially for you, Wells. You milked it like a dairy farmer in the Waikato.
Jeremy: [Our shows] were the first thing that went when you start to cut local production, because they started saying to companies, ‘your shows have got to start making money’. They asked ‘how much money does Eating Media Lunch make?’ I said ‘it loses, like $15,000-$20,000 an episode.’
Matt: But equally, you have responsibility if you’ve got New Zealand On Air funding to promote the shows that you back. Not just take the money and piss it away. You talk about Eating Media Lunch there, but Eating Media Lunch got good ratings; really good ratings. You’re getting about 450,000 people an episode.
Jeremy: Yeah but Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Suzanne Paul farting around in a shitty old limo with Anthony Ray Parker – was getting like a million people! A million people were watching that. So 450,000 wasn’t much.
Matt: We’ve got no ill-will against those broadcasters. But when you take something like Late Night Big Breakfast and you’ve been given a lot of New Zealand On Air funding, and they don’t put it on at the time that they said they would, because they’ve some show for overseas they think is going to rate better. Like, if New Zealand On Air has given you money, do everything you can to make it work. Because you’ve taken a bunch of fucking Government money you bastards.
Jeremy: Let’s talk about Late Night Big Breakfast. It was supported by TVNZ, and Leigh’s been supported by TVNZ for a long time. They always rated Leigh; they knew he was talented, like we all do. But where are they going to put it? Because TV One, right, has got an old demo. TV2 has got like a demo of 18 – 39 year-old girls – it doesn’t really fit in their either. So TVNZ had the right idea because it spotted the talent, knew that this guy was funny. But it really had no home.
Matt: But have you ever tried to grow a kumara in Invercargill? It won’t grow. And so it’s frickin’ stupid to plant the kumara of Late Night Big Breakfast at 10 o’clock on TV One. It won’t grow there.
Jeremy: But, is it wrong to have the idea to plant the kumara in the first place?
Is it wrong to have the idea? Because there was the idea by TVNZ to plant the kumara. Okay, sure, they were terrible farmers, and they were rubbish gardeners and they had brown fingers and they didn’t grow it right. But is it wrong – they had the original idea to try and grow it?
Matt: I’ve grown a lot of yams in the lower South Island. Yams just frickin’ blossom down there. So if you are living in the lower South Island – plant yams! Don’t plant kumaras.
Duncan: But is Late Night Big Breakast a yam or a kumara?
Matt: I would say that having it start at 10 o’clock, and moving to 10.09 one week and 10.15 the other week. With no promo at all – that is trying to plant a kumara in the Auckland Islands. Which are even further down, close to Antarctica. And that’s a terrible place to grow a kumara.
On Commissioning. And Kumara.
Matt: We’re only three days into it but what the three of us are quite into is: why not just try something? Try it short; and if something works we’ll back it forever.
Cameron: I talk about that often in the States. Like at NBC, if you premiere a show on the East Coast they all wait on the West Coast for the early ratings, so by the time you got to the West Coast three hours later you’re sitting in meetings to decide whether or not you’re going to cancel the show or not. And it hasn’t premiered on the West Coast yet! That was the level of not letting things breathe, not letting things find an audience.
Matt: That’s exactly what it is. But it didn’t used to always be like that. If you go back to NBC back in the day with Seinfeld, [it] had terrible ratings in the first season but there was a lot of support from the network. It wasn’t until the fourth season that Seinfeld really started running.
Duncan: Cameron do you want to talk about your involvement in WatchMe?
Cameron: So my background. Like Matt said, I created the first digital studio at NBC, so created television shows that ran everywhere except for on television. Spent time in production after that. So I think my role is to commercially make sure that we can stand these up as a business, and we can find the right funding paths: for advertising, sponsorship and that sort of thing, as well as create a sound business that gives these guys a place to play.
Matt: Make sure that there’s some nitrate on the soil when you plant kumaras.
Cameron: Yes. General Manager of nitrate.
Jeremy: I took a fork to the toilet by accident.
Matt: Me too. I shoved it up my japsy and wedged a tram and a molly in there.
Jeremy: You prefer a tram up the japsy rather than the jacksy?
Matt: Have you ever tried, instead of shelving things, throw them down the japsy?
Jeremy: Have you ever thrown a tram down the japsy?
Matt: We’re three days in and we’re still learning, you know?
Cameron: There’s an art and a science to programming, even in the digital space as.
Matt: It’s a cool little train set as well – a train set that NZME has taken a huge leap and supported. It allows you to try things. Like, for example, me and Jerry were driving back from our radio show and we normally record the last break, where in the last break we mention WatchMe, and I had the real figures of traffic on-site. And it’s just amazing, you can real time watch the way traffic goes up after we talk about the shows on the radio.
Cameron: We were walking out to go to a meeting and Matt changed the programming module on the home page of the Herald to show a piece that was more appropriate to that time of day and that audience at that point. There’s still a big chess game going on but the pieces are there.
Matt: The Critic and the Pig has been very popular, but it’s just a matter of timing that. There’s no point in really focusing on that at 7am; it’s more of a foody show so that works pretty well at lunch or dinner, or in the evening. Whereas with Yeti, you either like it or don’t like it. Do you like it?
Duncan: Yeah I really like it.
Jeremy: It’s incredibly unusual but it’s also slightly disturbing, and it’s uncomfortable, and you’re wondering why you’re uncomfortable. Is it because Natalie is speaking in a terrible kind of faux Asian accent?
Duncan: There’s just so many questions that just sort of rifle through your head. And in an era where there is so much data, it’s quite managed. So your brain likes the fact that this thing made it into the world, when everything was against it.
Jeremy: The other interesting thing about that show is, it’s purely surrealist in its essence yet she’s talking to real people. So there’s a weird thing going on, particularly when she’s asking people their real opinions. Why are those people answering those questions seriously?
That is a 30-year old woman in a Yeti suit speaking to you with a flamingo microphone; A. why have you stopped to talk to her, but B. why are you actually thinking about cultural identity? Some of the things that she’s trying to talk about, which is like, what does it mean, what is cultural identity and how does that define you, which is a massively big question that’s difficult to explain, yet those people are totally having a go. And I think being in a Yeti suit helps her to be able to deal with that. The fact that those people are actually answering it seriously, I’ve always found that really funny, especially the ones that are really giving it a good hard thought.
Cameron: What would have happened to Yeti five years ago, would it have found an audience? Is there a broadcaster that would have taken it on?
Matt: It wouldn’t have been heard of.
Jeremy: Maybe. I mean, it’s hard to say; she might have been a segment on another show sometime, or a roving reporter. A roving reporter on Sports Café? She probably would have had a segment somewhere else. I think that’s the other thing we don’t’ have any more – we don’t have those shows that were an hour, like Sports Café, where you’ve got to fill up an hour’s content every week.
It’s like, who the hell are we going to get to go and do something. Right, we’ll get Leigh to go and do some interviews with people; we’ll get Graham Hill to do a segment here; we’ll get Eva the Bulgarian to do another part here. You know, that idea of having to fill something created a certain pressure which forced you sometimes to make really what seemed at the time probably odd decisions, but ended up working.
Duncan: It’s a similar thing to what you’re doing, right? You’ve got to fill some slots; you’ve got to make things. And because the things are smaller, the bets are smaller, the risk is lower, you have this ability to kind of take fliers on things that traditional logic suggests you wouldn’t do.
Jeremy: Yeah. The other thing is you don’t have to target one particular demographic; that’s a massive equaliser. You don’t have to say, TV One can only do this because God help people being able to turn their channels; they can’t. That old model of the idea would go onto TV2. An 18-39 year-old would only watch TV2 between 6.30 at night when they get home and 10 o’clock when they go to sleep? And there were people like that; that was most of the population. That was what they did. My God that’s different now.
Cameron: Now the network brand doesn’t matter in your programming. The network brand is absolutely irrelevant.
Duncan: How have NZ on Air responded to you guys?
Jeremy: It’s great for them because what’s New Zealand on Air’s mandate? New Zealand on Air’s mandate is a whole lot of boxes that they to tick as part of the Broadcasting Act. And one of them is to showcase diversity, another one ethnicity.
I think what’s happened in the last little while is, because, as we spoke about earlier, networks have been looking for broad-based solutions to their audience issues. It means there’s been less fringe stuff that’s been made. So I think New Zealand on Air really likes seeing different stuff made. When we first started making TV hardly anybody went for New Zealand On Air funding, because there was heaps and heaps of production function sloshing around TVNZ and TV3; they made their own stuff in-house.
Matt: I think what’s really good about NZME and Jane [Hastings] is they’ve been willing to put some money up instead of just going to NZ on Air. That’s one thing that she said from the start when she wanted to create WatchMe: ‘we have to be making something. We can’t just be waiting around for funding; that’s not the way to do it.’
Duncan: I think there’s a real problem with some TV writing in this country. Certain writers we’ve spoken to say that basically it’s always in their mind what New Zealand On Air’s wanting to make. So they write specifically to that quite narrow remit. But it’s actually a tiny portion of the human experience.
Matt: Yeah. You take Big Breakfast. That was funded by New Zealand on Air. TVNZ didn’t nail it, but we believed in it, the three of us believed in it, and Jane believed in it. And so NZME put up a massive whack of money –
Cameron: Not small dollars.
Matt: Big money – to bring back the show. Because we really loved it. I loved that show. I felt it was wrong in the way it was supported – or was not supported. And I felt like NZ on Air had been ripped off, and I thought the people had been ripped off in the way TVNZ treated it.
And if this doesn’t work out I thought it was a real victory and a real good thing that we did. It’s something I feel very proud – that we resurrected a good show, and there’s so few good shows in the world. The fact that the company, from the top down, from the CEO down, backed it to resurrect the show without New Zealand on Air funding, I think that counts for something, you know?
Cameron: Going back to New Zealand on Air though, I’m new back in the market so correct me if you disagree, but I do think there’s a level of inquisitiveness and a curiosity there right now about what this new digital thing means – they want to try and understand it. Like we all are. But it’s good to see from them, both in their funding decisions and just their attitude: ‘come in and explain it, we want to learn and understand what it is’. There’s definitely a forward looking stance that they’re taking.
Matt: It totally is. You’re so right Cameron because it’s like: what is a screen? And that’s what they’re dealing with – what is a screen? Is it a TV screen in the lounge or is it just vision; they’re supporting vision, they’re supporting visual stuff, and it’s an interesting time for them. You’ve got to say they are sniffing around and they are working it out.
On the Civilian
Matt: I love The Civilian, and it was really cool that I was put in the position where I could be involved – that we could be involved – in taking this guy who was funny and giving him a visual outlet for his thing. If he was back in the early 2000s when I started, he would have been able to get out there. He’s got more talent than I ever had and I got a TV show, you know? So it’s great that we’ve been able to give him a show. And New Zealand on Air came in and backed it.
Duncan: He’s quite a singular, even slightly difficult talent, though. He’s been around and they’ve all been trying to get him. I remember Simon Wilson at Metro tried to get him but couldn’t. He’s prickly talent.
Matt: He said that he’s got offers before. We basically said: what do you want to do, and who do you like? And he said well I’m a big fan of Eating Media Lunch‘s stuff. So I said ‘would you like to work with Paul Casserly?’ And he said he’d love to, he’d feel really comfortable with him.
And jeez, you’ve got to admire a guy at his age, he’s turned down people. He thought about what he wanted to do and we had to provide the right thing for him to do it.
And he didn’t deliver what we asked him to deliver; we asked him to deliver what he wanted to. We said, you’re funny, so what do you want to do, and what can we do? He’s very good with people; very reserved and very smart, and he thinks and doesn’t push, and he has the confidence to sit in his own skin and be himself, whatever himself is. It’s good talent.
On the financial proposition:
Duncan: So Cameron, in terms of your side of things, are you confident that the general shape of what’s created is going to pay NZME back for the investment as currently constituted?
Cameron: What we announced on Tuesday [launch day] was the first phase. So as we look at our strengths and where we have audience against news and entertainment and sports, and all of those areas, I think it’s only just beginning to phase out that way. So yeah, I think the advertiser demand’s there, the audience is there, so long as we’re creating the right content for it. It’s in investment mode right now. But it’s a business we need to be in. It’s responding to a market need.
Duncan: Is it going to stay in that particular space or can you imagine getting broader? Are there going to be other WatchMe’s, or is WatchMe going to grow and change?
Jeremy: It’s like a baby. Like, we have Munchausen by proxy, and WatchMe is our baby and we may give it diseases to try and stop it from going out into the world so we can hold onto it ourselves, so we can watch things ourselves and use it as a social networking tool for ourselves. So make friends, and then make stuff…
Matt: Jeremy’s looking to have an affair.
Cameron: I think what Jeremy’s trying to say is –
Matt: He’s always been looking to get out there. He’s running it as a bit of a Tinder slash Grindr.
Jeremy: That’s right, Tinder slash Grindr slash Hornet to be honest. Anything I can get out of it.
Matt: So Jeremy’s always looking to have an affair and he finds it really hard to hook up with different people.
Jeremy: I can only go out with TV people; they’re the only people I have anything in common with. So I don’t want WatchMe to go into the world; I want it just to be ours.
Cameron: It’s a vanity project.
Jeremy: See, Matt wants more and more people to watch it; Cameron wants more people to watch it. For me the drive is to keep it as small and niche as possible.
Cameron: The most expensive vanity project ever!
Matt: I’ve always been interested in fauna, the wider fauna; not necessarily just humans.
Cameron: But we are going into other categories pretty aggressively, so you can imagine. WatchMe the brand was always designed to be flexible and so not just comedy. Comedy’s the beach head, the opportunity today.
Duncan: And are you guys [Matt and Jeremy] confident you can commission outside of that or are there going to be other people with input into those areas?
Matt: Well yeah, I mean, we want to make great sports shows – but they’re not classic sports shows. I find a lot of sports shows is just people sitting around on seats being really fucking boring. So we want to do –
Jeremy: That’s a really good explanation that. “A lot of people sitting round on seats being fucking boring”. Really succinct.
Matt: There’s been great sports shows. Pulp Sport was a great sports show. And so we want to make –
Jeremy: Sports variety.
Matt: Yeah, so we want to get those two back together and we want to do it on WatchMe.
Jeremy: There is a time to bring sports and cooking back together. I think that’s where our future lies.
Cameron: Their understanding of an audience extends well beyond comedy, so the lens that they can put on entertainment, music, business and all of that is much broader than just comedy. Jesus Christ, I gotta go.
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