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It’s not a fad: what TVNZ must learn from Netflix

A TVNZ exec made headlines last week for calling Netflix a fad. But after another big budget failure, Duncan Greive asks if it’s time the state broadcaster tried to learn from the streaming giant, rather than embarrassing itself by dismissing it.

Last week Andrew Shaw, TVNZ’s veteran deputy director of content, made headlines for describing the phenomenally popular streaming service Netflix as a fad, a pet kept more out of habit than love. He went on to say that it might originate just 12 great shows  a year, out of what he estimates as 500 created worldwide.

Then, a week later, Filthy Rich returned to TVNZ2.

The juxtaposition was jarring, making a position already difficult to sustain entirely untenable. Because while Shaw is right to point out that Netflix’s originals are far from all hits – it’s completed a rash of cancellations over the past month – none come close to the risible standard of Filthy Rich.

The show, a chintzy and dated soap about heirs squabbling over a fortune, has been universally panned by critics, myself included, to the point where its co-creator, Gavin Strawhan, lashed out at the sentiment in a recent interview. “A small group of w— think they should dictate to the rest of the country what the rest of the country’s tastes are. And they feel really arrogant about it, and they don’t acknowledge what people actually like, because they want some dark, moody Norwegian thriller.”

The implication is that there’s an urban elite who crave bold, modern television which would be ignored by the masses. It’s a rhetorically attractive idea, similar to Trump’s disdain for the liberal media in favour of what he would claim are ‘real’ Amercians. Unfortunately for Strawhan, it’s not only critics who dislike the show.

On Tuesday it debuted with an audience of just over 102,000 viewers in the 25-54 bracket, according to Nielsen ratings leaked to The Spinoff – approximately half that which watched its first episode in 2016. It was well-beaten by shlocky US cop show NCIS on Three, an ignominious fate for a drama which cost New Zealand taxpayers more than $500,000 an episode.

By any standards it’s a shockingly small viewership, and will ensure that it is near-certain to be canceled by the network.

The bigger question is why it received a second season in the first place, having suffered precipitous ratings declines last year too. In style and writing it seems like a ghost of television past, somehow arriving in our lounges in 2017.

Watching it I thought about Shaw’s dismissal of Netflix, and was struck by what he could learn from the organisation if he simply paused to assess its successes and what has driven them.

Netflix’s early original hits were House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, both landmarks for different reasons. House of Cards was created by Beau Willimon, an acclaimed playwright making his first show, based on a cult BBC miniseries with direction from Oscar nominee David Fincher. Orange is the New Black was an adaptation of a novel with a nearly-all female cast and a female showrunner making only her second TV show.

Neither could have made those risk-strewn shows at a network; each has become a massively acclaimed and agenda-setting production. The maddening thing is, the same kind of opportunities exist for TVNZ, too.

While our locally-originated television drama languishes for the most part, our film has done terrifically well these past few years, led by Taika Waititi but with a solid cohort in his wake. Those directors could easily come across to television, given the right freedom and project. Indeed, the signature New Zealand TV show of the ‘10s has been filmmaker Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake for the BBC.

Likewise, unleashing young talent from theatre or web series is arguably easier for TVNZ than any other network – largely because of work it’s already doing. It has a strong slate of local shorts, and just concluded the competition New Blood, showcasing an intimidating level of emerging talent begging to be given a more substantial project. Similarly, theNew Zealand’s theatre scene is bulging with bold talents crying out for a shot up.

Yet instead TVNZ sticks to creators less tried and true than tried and failed. Not uncoincidentally, that’s also the case for some of the commissioners making those calls.

Both sets appear to be coasting through a turbulent era, insulated at the state broadcaster from the storms disrupting other organisations.

Yet after the expensive and very public failure of Filthy Rich, perhaps it’s time Shaw and his executive colleagues stopped waiting for Netflix to disappear, and instead attempted to take lessons from the brave and popular insurgent. Because we don’t lack for the ability to make fresh, imaginitive and popular TV so much as we lack for the will.


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