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Nevak Rogers (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Nevak Rogers (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

MediaNovember 17, 2023

A chat with the most important person in NZ TV on the most important day of their year

Nevak Rogers (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Nevak Rogers (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

TVNZ’s acting director of content Nevak Rogers talks Duncan Greive through what we can expect to see from the broadcaster in 2024, and the challenges facing the industry.

This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s weekly pop culture newsletter Rec Room. Sign up here.

In the local TV calendar, this time of year is where the action is. We have the Spada screen production conference, an annual airing of grievances inspiring industry gathering (truly it’s both). We have the TV awards, which are fun and basically the same as the above. There’s an NZ on Air Christmas party, helpfully held the day before they tell you whether you get to make your show next year. 

And there’s the upfronts. This is where the big TV networks gather advertisers together to tell them about what they’ll be screening next year, in the hope of getting them excited enough to make millions of dollars in ad bookings. I had no idea they existed until I started getting invited when The Spinoff began.

Upfronts are fascinating in so many ways – they’re the single biggest day for new TV show announcements, as well as a great pulse check for the local TV industry. They used to be insanely opulent parties – one had a drummer rising through the stage of the Civic, another featured Paul Henry in a pretend car at the Cloud. In recent years that’s changed, though, as has the relative health of our major networks.

Chillingly, TVNZ’s crosstown rivals at Three aren’t even holding upfronts this year – the first time that’s ever happened as far as I’m aware. A spokesperson said that the channel is “looking at how best to engage clients in a way which aligns with our digi first strategy”, but a source at Warner Brother-Discovery, Three’s parent company, acknowledged that it’s not just about that. They said that it didn’t feel right to have a big, expensive celebration just weeks after it was announced that The Project will be shutting down.

This year’s was easily the most pared-back TVNZ upfronts I’ve seen. Split into three identical events to recognise the limited capacity of the venue – their own atrium – it was a relatively austere event befitting the tough times in media. It was a far cry from the blockbuster at Spark Arena a year ago, featuring women wearing dresses made entirely from champagne flutes. 

It was still an impressive event, and the lineup is pretty strong – especially given that Hollywood’s strikes have only just ended, stymying some of next year’s big international shows. Tara Ward and Alex Casey have analysed the slate in an essential blow-by-blow, but I wanted to dig into the weeds of what’s happening at TVNZ, so I spoke with Nevak Rogers. She’s former on-screen talent who has risen to become acting director of content at TVNZ, and therefore the single most powerful influence over what we see on our screens.

Rogers is someone who really believes in the power of TV to reflect and evolve this country, but works at a company which has had its share of redundancies this year, including a key drama commissioner from her own team. TVNZ has also seen some high profile exec resignations, including CEO Simon Power, CFO Ciara McGuigan and her predecessor as head of content Cate Calver – only one of whom has been formally replaced.

This is in part the aftermath of the dumped merger with RNZ, but it also tells a story about an organisation trying to figure out how to digitally transition in an extremely challenging environment for any media business. 

Duncan Greive: What are you personally most excited about with the new lineup?

Nevak Rogers: The Documentary NZ strand has been a pet project over the last few years, getting that funded with NZ On Air. So seeing some of those docos come through – the Dilworth documentary and the documentary following Mana Kura, which is following a bunch of rangatahi from Papakura, where I grew up. So I’ve got a real affinity to that place and the things that are happening in the communities around ram raids and community based, grassroots level solutions from you know, the mums and the marae.

The Hospital is another piece that I’m really looking forward to seeing come through. Emma Wehipeihana, who is pretty well-known in media circles, is now a GP based out at Middlemore. Just kind of understanding, you know, the pressures as well as so many of the triumphs that come through that hospital. 

Celebrity Treasure Island winner James Mustapic and acting director of content Nevak Rogers at the TVNZ upfronts (Photo: Supplied)

What impact has the writers and actors strikes carried on next year’s slate? And how have you navigated around that?

It’s interesting – we got back from [TV industry sales conference] MIPCOM in London just a few weeks ago. One of the things I probably hadn’t fully appreciated was the impact that the writers strike is having, not just in the US, but also that there were a number of UK productions which had either writers or actors who were from the States attached to those projects. A lot of those have been paused or cancelled. 

It’s a really big kaupapa that they’re grappling with. So, I’m really thrilled that that made some progress. Once everything has been signed on the dotted line, we’re working with all of the international studios to have a look at the shows. In some instances, that will mean potentially the show is delayed, and others that might be a shorter run of some of those series. And some may not have a season up in the new year. So we’re just working through all of that at the moment.

The big leadoff announcement in the PR was all about property shows, which has historically been a strength of Three. What is the function of those shows?

It wasn’t like we put out an RFP [request for proposal] or anything like that – but a lot of these shows have got legs overseas. So, with less opportunity for shows to be made here in New Zealand, there’s a lot more co-production that’s happening internationally, and that’s in the factual space as well as in the scripted space. So having New Zealand’s Best Homes with Phil Spencer, that’s gonna be amazing. Love it or List It NZ, My Dream Green Home, Grand Designs is coming back, as is Country House Hunters NZ, and Moving Houses. It’s a suite of programs that perform really, really well both with our linear and our TVNZ+ audiences. 

Location Location Location stalwarts Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsopp. Phil is coming to New Zealand (Photo: Supplied)

The After the Party story feels closed. But are you working with that team again? Is there room for a spiritual, if not literal, sequel? 

We are having talks. Whenever a show comes in, we’re always looking at “OK, so is it returnable?” If it’s successful, by the time you put in all the commissioning, marketing, investment, all the things… So nothing to announce yet, but we are definitely having talks. 

This time last year, the whole organisation was pretty set upon the merger with RNZ. How much work did that require? And how difficult has it been unpicking that work?

There was a significant amount of work that happened alongside our peers at RNZ. So when that was cancelled in February, we had to have a look at our strategy in terms of what could be retained. I feel like over the last three years, we’ve done a lot of work alongside our production partners, particularly in the local space to have a look at you know, our purpose and values and how we show Aotearoatanga, how we look at our Mana Reo or how we look at Kia Māia – those those three value sets. So I feel like a lot of work has already been done prior to ANZPM [the name for the merged organisations]. It’s just been a matter of tweaking that, and looking at how  we can continue to do that without any government support in terms of putea.

In terms of your own team, you’ve lost a commissioner for drama [Steve Barr] recently, and the workload doesn’t look like it’s any smaller. What kind of impact are the constraints that flow out of the difficult commercial environment having on your team, and TVNZ more broadly?

That’s the piece that keeps you up at night. Looking around at media organisations around Aotearoa it’s no different. We’re all small margins, we’re in a country of only five-and-a-half million people. I think the Love Local campaign that Spada is spearheading to try and lobby to have the streamers taxed – I think that will go a long way. So potentially providing a new form of income, a new form of putea, that’s going to make it easier for us to continue to grow our local sector here in New Zealand. 

We’re really having to reduce costs and live within our means. It’s been some really tough decisions. Steve [Barr, the outgoing drama commissioner] is still with us for a little bit longer. But we did have his farewell last week, and it was pretty emotional. It’s hard to lose good people. In terms of the way SPR and NZ On Air is shaping up – don’t don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fantastic initiative. But in the old days, you’d have had decisions in July, a lot of those productions would have actually been filming about now. But now that we’ve got things like The Gone, which received funding, they’re tidying up all of their international partnerships and arrangements, so things are going to be a lot more staggered, going forward. It’s a really hard trade off. It’s been tough.

How critical do you think the Spada campaign is for the industry to be able to compete on a more even footing with the streamers?

There are other territories around the world where there is legislation in place to try and protect the local sector. I have a lot of respect for our production partners who have done it bloody tough over the past few years. Whether it’s been Covid, and the impacts of that – and the continuing impacts of that. So many times shows are having to just pause and close down when your lead actor or whoever goes down. But of course, all those subsidies have gone away. So I’m hugely supportive of the work that Spada is doing in that space. 

Once we know who our minister is, we’d be very much behind trying to find a levy. That’s something that the sector has been talking about for a long time. It feels really timely.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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