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MediaOctober 25, 2022

How the merger of TVNZ and RNZ might accidentally save comedy


The government’s big media merger is all about finding new audiences. A conversation with Chris Parker prompted Duncan Greive to think about what it might do for creatives.

It began, as so many great New Zealand comedy successes do, at The Basement, an airless, windowless concrete bunker off Queen St in Auckland which has birthed an inordinate number of our recent comedy and stage stars. In 2016 it hosted a play put on at an unconventional time of day and year – 10pm and during the Comedy Festival, when almost everything else is stand-up.

The show was Camping, about two closeted men double booked at a motel in 1970s middle New Zealand. They and their wives spend a weekend awakening to their sexualities, culminating in a bacchanalian orgy. It remains the single funniest thing I’ve seen on a stage. Co-stars and co-writers Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury, with Kura Forrester and Brynley Stent as their wives, created an electric comedy that seemed destined to grow into a cult classic across any format you care to name.

Brynley Stent, Chris Parker, Tom Sainsbury and Kura Forrester in a promo image for their 2016 play Camping

Now, six years on, all involved are household names, but Camping remains a play, briefly revived but in no danger of being developed into a movie or anything else. This week I had Chris Parker on The Fold, my podcast about the media in New Zealand, and talked to him about Camping, and the conversation took a turn. It’s a topic that will be familiar to almost anyone working in creative industries in New Zealand – only Parker was willing to discuss it with a rare candour and a live mic.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Parker talked about Flight of the Conchords, a show which has become mythic in this country not just because it was briefly the most acclaimed comedy in the world, and launched its creators to international stardom, but because of where it had to go to do that. Conchords was infamously turned down by TVNZ, and it was only the vision of HBO – the most renowned TV talent pickers of this millennium – that got it to screens.

“That story exists because it sums up this industry so beautifully,” Parker told me. He and Sainsbury are part of a generation of comics who have come up through the Basement and are now in their mid-20s to mid-30s and feel more than ready for bigger things. Rose Matafeo, also part of that group, has become an international star, and most of the rest are consistently working here in New Zealand. It’s what they’re working on, and who they’re working with, that is the issue.

It’s doing panel shows like 7 Days, Patriot Brains and Have You Been Paying Attention. It’s being plugged into radio trios to punch out jokes. It’s being brought into pre-existing projects as comic talent. Instead of working with Parker, Sainsbury is being stunt cast alongside former deputy prime minister Paula Bennett, whom he famously parodied, or worse, with a Samsung phone, as in his new show Flip it or Win It.

“We don’t get to work together,” says Parker of Sainsbury. “And I don’t understand why that happens. Because the magic is when we can be together, working together and doing what we want to be doing.”

Rose Matafeo has found international success through her BBC comedy Starstruck. (Photo: Supplied)

Commissioners at TV networks have long been cast as the villains in this piece, and Parker is not uncritical of their role, lamenting being turned down for a project with the Camping cast, and again for another Parker/Sainsbury vehicle which he saw as potentially appealing to the same audience as Wellington Paranormal.

Yet he believes production companies – those who make the shows and pitch ideas to the networks – are just as culpable. “It’s not broad enough” has become the phrase which breaks hearts, a way of suggesting that your idea is cute but could never attract a sufficiently large audience. “I guess people don’t trust creatives,” says Parker.

He contrasts that with the UK, where Matafeo has made Starstruck, a show which feels entirely constructed out of the persona she honed at The Basement. Here in New Zealand, the ideas come from somewhere else, with the comics brought in to fill them out. “Of course they’ll do a good job. They’re professional. But we’re not moving forward in any way,” says Parker. “Because it’s not creator driven. It’s vehicle driven.”

Is there a solution on the horizon?

We live in an era of plummeting linear TV ratings; the energy and audience has definitively moved to digital. Despite the collective size of online audiences, however, individual shows on networks’ streaming platforms almost always attract far smaller numbers than those broadcast on linear TV. As a result, linear TV advertising remains by far the biggest revenue generator for our networks.

That’s why even now, in 2022, linear ratings are what lurks behind that “broad enough” stock response. While the taxpayer, through NZ on Air, funds 90% or more of the cost of many productions, the size of a show’s audience dictates advertising income. The fear of a flop is a large reason why we have so many multi-night reality shows and comedy quizzes – they are known quantities expected to attract relatively stable audiences (that said, ratings are sharply down across the board this year, including for reality series and comedy quizzes that were previously sure-fire hits).

The acclaimed TVNZ series Creamerie is a rare creative brightspot on the local TV landscape. (Photo: TVNZ)

There are always exceptions – brave commissioners and smart production companies made Creamerie happen; the same with NZ Today and The Casketeers. But Parker’s view is shared by creatives across the TV industry, from writers to documentary makers to actors waiting on a script that will become a defining role, and crew wanting to work on something that crackles with the potential to explode.

Help might be on its way. The government’s merger of TVNZ and RNZ into ANZPM is primarily motivated by audiences, because linear TV and radio perform dismally among younger and more diverse communities. The theory is that by merging the state’s big media assets and giving them a big budget boost and a fresh mandate, they’ll track down their missing audiences online.

One aspect that hasn’t been much discussed is ANZPM’s potential to provide a major boost to the creative community. Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson has made it very clear that the merger’s north star is audience, not commercial revenue – and he has publicly rebuked TVNZ for what he perceives as a too-narrow focus on its bottom line. If he gets his way, large chunks of the $140m or so in funding could find its way to much more creator-centric shows.

This is because the vast majority of them will never play on linear TV. Decoupled from revenue pressure, shows will be commissioned to meet the needs of particular communities, to bring them into the ANZPM fold. The idea is that ad revenue will be incidental, a second order priority.

In practice this will be very complex, and the plans remain ill-defined. But the promise that lurks behind the current chaos is of a system which, in finding fresh audiences, can empower creatives too. Remember Matafeo’s success with Starstruck? It became a hit because the BBC has a different mandate and never has to worry about advertisers, and thus has a higher tolerance for creative risks – which means more pay off.

(NZ on Air for its part, already works with an audience-centric mandate, though it is constrained by what the big networks put forward for funding. While the merger will massively reduce its budget, without TVNZ to worry about NZOA will also be freed to more fully embrace digital too.)

There is a lot that will have to play out before this creative utopia is reached. The arm wrestle between government and TVNZ is real, as is the confusion about how its commercial and community tensions are resolved. There is a sense that parts of TVNZ are waiting on next year’s election, trusting that should National win the new government will allow it to operate in a more explicitly commercial way, or even call off the merger entirely. Meanwhile the rise of TikTok has everyone shook, and if shortform vertical video continues to take attention share then the new entity will have little choice but to follow NZ on Air in commissioning shows directly for that platform.

This is definitely not what Parker and most of the screen community has in mind – a new boss who might even be worse than the old boss as far as creative constraints go. But one way or another, an era is ending and another being born. For those who have chafed at the bounds of the possible for years, it’s worth leaning into the promise this new era contains.

Keep going!