MediaJune 24, 2024

Is this the end of NZ reality TV as we know it?


Some of the biggest shows on television might well be airing their final seasons in 2024. Duncan Greive explains why.

If you’re just watching television on your couch, the way god intended, this might look like a strong year for New Zealand reality TV. Three has screened My Mum, Your Dad and is currently showing the return of Married at First Sight (MAFS) NZ, while The Traitors NZ returns for what looks a terrific second season shortly. TVNZ has a similarly stacked lineup, with Celebrity Treasure Island (CTI) continuing its golden return and Love It or List It NZ, Grand Designs NZ and MKR NZ all coming down the pipe.

The thing about television, though, is that we’re always living in the past. Those shows were largely commissioned in 2023, an entirely different economic reality for New Zealand media. Since then we’ve seen the advertising market tank, and TVNZ jettison two of its highest-rating and most beloved news shows in Sunday and Fair Go, on the way to forecasting a staggering loss of up to $33m

Somehow, that’s the good news in free-to-air television. Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), owners of Three and ThreeNow, completely shut down Newshub, signalled a potential withdrawal from Bravo and trimmed jobs everywhere. By August, just 150 people will work at what was until recently a beefy powerhouse of New Zealand media.

Alongside that end-of-an-era, WBD signalled that it will no longer commission fully-funded local shows – likely meaning that beyond the Stuff-made 6pm bulletin, its only local shows will likely be funded by NZ on Air. 

Things aren’t much better at TVNZ.

“Unfortunately it won’t be possible to bring to air the same volume of local reality programming as we have in the past,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement supplied to The Spinoff. “We are working with our partners on ways to deliver reality in a more cost-effective way, i.e. new formats that utilise third-party funding models.” 

How the sausage is financed

The average TV viewer, whether on linear or streaming, would be forgiven for just enjoying the shows and not being overly concerned about how they’re financed. But it’s worth unpacking that, because the financing is suddenly extremely relevant to what is made – and what isn’t. Broadly speaking, there are two main ways local television gets to our free-to-air screens. 

For comedy, drama and documentary, it’s largely financed by NZ on Air or Te Māngai Pāho. Reality TV occasionally sneaks through, mainly in the form of shows like The Casketeers or Homai Te Pakipaki, which have persuasive cultural or language outcomes. Some shows also receive support through the screen production rebate (known as the SPR), which returns some production spending to the show’s producers.

Broad franchises like MAFS NZ or CTI are mostly paid for by the network, which makes its money back by selling advertising around them, and integrating products into scenes (hence all the Moccona they slurp on MAFS NZ). 

The cast of Married at First Sight NZ 2024

For years that model has been under tension. You could see it in the way the same show was suddenly on multiple nights per week, often for more than an hour at a time. It started to fray recently in other ways – CTI began to be shot in New Zealand, sometimes not even on an island. Meanwhile, on MAFS NZ they barely leave their apartments nowadays. 

Remember though, even those less lavish shows represent last year’s media economy. In 2023 Celebrity Treasure Island cost almost $7m, while Heartbreak Island cost nearly $6m. Despite receiving tax rebates totalling around $5m, it’s likely that TVNZ picked up the bulk of the rest of the cost, given that there is presumably limited overseas appeal for those shows.

Life was clearly different back then. TVNZ was profitable, and ambitious, picking up the Spark Sports package to make a bold play into live sports. Now the advertising slump has savaged the state broadcaster, leading to those devastating cuts to news and beyond – and a loss so large that more cuts are near inevitable.

This means that TVNZ, which has been the largest commissioner of franchise reality TV in recent years, will find it hard to make similar commitments into the future. When asked what that means for big, broad and pricey reality shows, TVNZ was sanguine. “We’re still working through proposals for beyond 2024,” according to a spokesperson.

That’s the cold economic reality of smaller audiences and even greater reductions in ad revenue. But worse are the optics – every non-publicly funded commission will be scrutinised closely by TVNZ’s newsroom. Sunday cost about $2.7m to produce a high rating hour a week for most of the year. Any future season of CTI or MKR NZ will be judged against that number, rightly or wrongly.

Given that WBD has already signalled the end for its franchise reality TV slate, it means that the era of big, broad, popular reality TV franchises – which ran from NZ Idol through Next Top Model through X-Factor to the Bachelor and Bake Off to MAFS – that’s likely to be done after 2024.

The 2021 cast of Celebrity Treasure Island (Photo: TVNZ)

Is it a problem? Depends who’s asking

Many will say: good. There is a cultural superiority complex which views reality TV as déclassé, contributing empty cultural calories and distracting audiences from more worthy drama or film. Others argue that unscripted television starring ordinary New Zealanders can create moments of pathos and joy, evolve language and bridge generations – many of the attributes we prize in drama and film, simply delivered in a different form.

More to the point, it comes down to something very basic: is the state’s role to fund content which audiences love, or content politicians and funders feel audiences ought to love. For decades one was funded by taxes, the other by advertisers. With advertisers fleeing the scene, suddenly we’re facing a new world in which many of the local reality shows, and even workplace observational shows like Border Patrol, are suddenly vulnerable in ways they never would have been before.

It’s not set in stone. If the economy magically rebounds, and advertisers suddenly decide to start supporting local platforms again, maybe TVNZ and WBD will be able to keep a few franchises alive. NZ on Air could have a change of heart – it funded some franchises a long while ago, it could do so again – particularly those that (like CTI) have successfully dialled up socio-cultural elements. The government might have some magical media policy in its bag that fixes the deep malaise cloaking domestic media. 

Those are all long shots. Most of them are highly improbable. So enjoy this year’s shows, patchy as they sometimes are. It just might be the last local winter of reality TV as we’ve known and loved it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people who will work at WBD from August. The Spinoff regrets the error.

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