One Question Quiz
Image: Getty; Additional design: The Spinoff
Image: Getty; Additional design: The Spinoff

MediaNovember 28, 2022

Notes from the TV industry’s most dramatic week of the year

Image: Getty; Additional design: The Spinoff
Image: Getty; Additional design: The Spinoff

Duncan Greive spends 24 hours in the TV world as it stares down the most epochal changes in its history.

It doesn’t make any sense. Why would you schedule your biggest party of the year right before your biggest conference of the year? But that’s what the TV world did. Its annual awards night came on November 24, just before Spada got everyone together to have a big think.

The awards were fun for half the room – everyone duly got dressed up, turned out and watched TVNZ absolutely dominate. The night was expertly MCed by Kura Forrester, whose jokes had just the right amount of edge. It had a La La Land / Moonlight moment, when Newsroom and Q+A both thought they’d won, providing the unintentional highlight of the night. And The Panthers took home over 20% of the awards, in so doing showing an industry which is starting to look and feel very different, in a beautiful, hopeful way.

Then the next morning, a decent chunk of the crowd, nursing varying hangovers, dragged themselves out to Spada’s annual conference. Spada is the organisation which represents producers and screen development in Aotearoa – the people who make the vast bulk of the local shows on TV and streaming – and the conference was hotly anticipated within the industry. That’s because it is in a moment of unprecedented flux. After a decade of audience migration to digital platforms, with broadcasters, revenue and funders lagging behind, the whole system is being redesigned.

The government is merging TVNZ and RNZ into ANZPM, or “Anz-Pam”, as it is known within the organisations now. It’s also gifting ANZPM well over $100m a year in new money with an explicit mandate to make public media content that serves audiences (like tamariki, rangatahi, Māori, Pacific, Pan-Asian and migrant communities) it does not currently reach well, versus those (like older Pākehā) that it does. At the same time, the same government is chopping out a huge chunk of NZ on Air’s budget. NZ on Air is New Zealand’s decentralised public broadcaster, a strange unicorn which exists only here, but has served New Zealand pretty well for over 30 years.

On stage at Spada the TV sector gathered to hear NZ on Air explain how it would change to reflect its chastened circumstances, and later have TVNZ and RNZ talk through the state of the merger, and how it would impact the production community. It was a hectic and fascinating 24 hour bloc, in the exact opposite order you’d expect it to unfold. I went along to both events – here are 10 things that leapt out.

The merger hangs over everything

As NZ on Air chief executive Cam Harland said at the start of its presentation, “all of these assumptions are based on ANZPM being up and running”. The merger is a seismic event, turning the production sector’s focus from NZ on Air and its $100m-ish budget to ANZPM, which will have as much as $200m to spend on local shows.

It’s also something which hasn’t happened yet – the draft legislation was harshly criticised by almost the whole media sector, and we’ve yet to see a revised bill. At various times it has felt a little shaky, and National increasingly uses it as shorthand for out-of-control government spending that no one particularly wants.

For all that, broadcasting minister Willie Jackson told me that even after Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr suggested all new spending should be paused, “the government is committed to the continuation of the work on the ANZPM bill”. So everyone has to act like this thing is definitely going to happen, even though it hasn’t actually happened and still plausibly might not.

The TVNZ historical drama Panthers was the big winner at the 2022 NZ TV Awards

TVNZ 45, Warner Bros. Discovery 2

Tracey Martin, the former NZ First MP chairing the board putting ANZPM together, has been at pains to say that it will be a gentle friend to the industry, helping all boats float, contra the very real fears of the private sector.

Yet TVNZ absolutely dominated the TV awards – to such an extent that it was a bit grotesque, almost politically inconvenient. A word search of the press release that went out after the awards mentioned its name 45 times (admittedly slightly inflated by shows which ran across linear and TVNZ+). As for Warner Bros. Discovery, the owners of Three? Their name came up just twice. Of the 39 awards, just 12 went to non-TVNZ platforms. It’s a chilling omen, as ANZPM will create an organisation 50% larger by revenue – and no matter how friendly the giant, it’s hard to imagine other media platforms not getting crushed under its feet. Or them showing up to awards ceremonies to fill the other podium spots while ANZPM celebrates itself.

Willie Jackson disappears (with a decent excuse)

When the Spada conference was first announced, it featured one extremely high profile guest: the broadcasting minister, who was scheduled to introduce the discussion between TVNZ and RNZ. Just days before, though, he was a scratch. Did this mean the merger was on shaky ground? It’s an unpopular policy which might have been given air cover to be abandoned by Adrian Orr’s OCR bazooka on Wednesday. The truth was more prosaic – with parliament in a four-day, ultra-long period of urgency, the minister was required in Wellington. It doesn’t mean the merger is a done deal, but Jackson remains very committed to this one.

Introducing a smaller, humbler NZ on Air

I bumped into NZ on Air’s Cam Harland and Amie Mills on Federal Street prior to Spada. The pair had the air of prisoners walking to the dock for sentencing. They have had a pretty rough year since finding out their budget was being taken away and handed to ANZPM, meaning they have to achieve the same huge remit – to entertain and inform New Zealanders – with a much more modest budget.

But their presentation was the best thing about the whole 24 hours – clear, thoughtful, a pragmatic but quietly visionary response to their changed circumstances. Even John Barnett, former head of South Pacific Pictures and a reliable antagonist of whomever is on stage, could only muster a fairly half-hearted critique.

It’s all the more surprising because the production community will be disproportionately impacted in its relationship with NZ on Air. This is because it is maintaining its full funding of things ANZPM can’t fund – music, most prominently, but also a range of smaller platforms like NZ on Screen. This means it can only spend a tiny $15m on scripted drama and comedy, for example. For scale, a single season of a big drama like Westside can run close to $10m.

Harland and Mills admitted that those kind of shows are gone from their remit now. They seem to view themselves instead as being really focused on research, development and providing “gap funding” that will help productions like Rūrangi make the leap from web series to international platforms. Almost like a venture capital firm seeking to maximise its ROI. It’s not a bad idea, particularly given it has been assembled in a matter of weeks. By the end of their presentation, you got the feeling that NZ on Air might like its new small-budget strategy more than the one it left behind.

The transgender drama Rūrangi made the leap from web series to international feature film with the help of NZ on Air

The whole industry is literally and metaphorically hungover 

The literally part was down to the after party, when the TV awards moved from the waterfront to Groove Bar in Kingsland, to keep the party going. Groove is owned by Bailey Mackey, who also owns Pango Productions and is on too many boards to count, but was still roped in to work the bar due to the sheer volume of TV people drinking to celebrate or commiserate. At Spada, poor Cate Slater, director of content at TVNZ, was singled out by NZ on Air’s Harland for her hangover, which is absolutely not what a hungover person wants in a room full of 200 of her peers (for the record, when she was on stage later, Slater performed admirably).

The metaphorical hangover is related to the web of post-Covid responses still working their way through different parts of the industry. There was the Public Interest Journalism fund, which has rumbled through the news media. There’s the Te Puna Kairangi fund, which pumped $50m into premium productions. TVNZ and Discovery both upped their local commissioning while the pandemic shut off some of their international productions, while Amazon and Netflix both shot big budget productions too. All of this created an overheated production environment where there were a lot more shows than usual. Now the sector sits in suspended animation, with the old NZ on Air world fading and the new ANZPM one not yet clear. It’s freaking people out, as you would expect.

WATA and data

One thing which sits uneasily through all this is a fundamental question of measurement. We know people are leaving linear television – the raw number of people watching shows is well down, per Nielsen (and even that data must now be taken somewhat circumspectly, given recent disclosures). But just how many people are watching online remains hotly contested. There are still substantial parts of the production sector which resent any funding going to non-broadcast platforms, because the audiences don’t seem to be at the same scale as even the sharply reduced numbers still watching television. Yet it seems morally repugnant not to address the fact that millions of New Zealand taxpayers are funding shows and services they never, ever watch.

NZ on Air has been focused on this question, and now views research and data-gathering as a core part of its remit. On Tuesday it releases a special youth-focused edition of its much-anticipated, highly-debated Where Are the Audiences? (WATA) survey. It will show which channels, brands and platforms under 25s are watching, and not watching. NZ on Air will be dialling up this research, which is now part of the thinking of everyone from media companies to ad agencies, and is encouraging all platforms to sign up to a new analytics platform whenever they run NZ on Air-funded content. This will prove controversial, but anything which improves comparable data in the space should be welcomed.

PASC and Niu Waves and the future of development

Two initiatives that were singled out by NZ on Air as little markers of where they’re going, and how the industry should understand them, came from the Pan Asian Screen Collective and Pacific Island Screen Artists. Both are pilot programmes run by mission-oriented not-for-profits which aim to increase the training and access of their communities to the screen industry. While ANZPM will surely commission many more Pacific and pan-Asian creators over time, it seems vital that organisations independent of it help nurture talent and visibility within those communities. PASC’s work and Niu Waves, one it inspired from PISA, are increasingly central to funders’ thoughts.

Are we making too much content?

This was a question posed by South Pacific Picture’s Kelly Martin after RNZ and TVNZ’s session. While it has been part of a familiar refrain from the big players (to suggest NZ on Air should stop funding the small players), it was something I heard echoed in private from the small players too. That there was a bit of exhaustion as all shows require crews to be assembled and productions run, and then to compete for attention. NZ on Air addressed this, saying it was likely to cap both the number of applications and budgets for different platforms, so as to encourage the sector to only create what it really, really wanted. You could feel sighs of relief the whole way around.

RNZ and TVNZ, havin’ a lil chat

It’s not a secret that RNZ is much more enthusiastic about the merger than TVNZ, largely because it has worse offices, worse pay and more challenges. It also already has a charter that it lives with every day, meaning less of a change. So it was refreshing to see two execs from RNZ and two from TVNZ happily sharing a stage, during a panel moderated by Spada’s effervescent chair Irene Gardiner. All were more convincing in the case they made for the merger than the government has been at times, which is probably a good sign.

Stephen Smith, head of strategy at RNZ, harked back to a talk he made at the same conference in 2005, when he was acting CE for TVNZ, making the case for another contentious piece of legislation, TVNZ’s charter. He talked about how most fears never came to pass then, and suggested those circulating now might not either.

TVNZ’s Slater provided a little window into the gulf between the organisations when she made reference to the “commercial demographics” – that is, audiences which advertisers will pay to sell to, a totally alien concept to RNZ. She also posited that “all local content is public media content”, which is an argument I have a lot of time for, but again, that would imply that FBOY Island is public media, and Beef+Lamb’s new barbecue show too. There will be many who would dispute that.

RNZ’s Megan Whelan made perhaps the most salient point of all, saying “we have to stop talking about radio and television, we need to start talking about the internet”. This is something the whole industry still struggles to do – it might be that only ANZPM is a big and substantial enough change to make that happen.

How long will this go on?

Related to Whelan’s point, on the morning of Spada, the very good, very cutting industry email newsletter ShowNews landed. It was particularly pointed, and contained this eye-popping paragraph:

“Sometime in 2020 linear broadcast surrendered its lead as people’s preferred method of consuming screen content, across all age groups, despite the Gold Carders’ best efforts. It might be fun to joke about grandparents’ ability to use a remote, but it remained better than their ability to use the internet. The dead and dying are now TVNZ’s key demographic, and while it’s impolite to shout that from the rooftops, just look at the advertisers who remain loyal. They’re happy – not only is advertising cheaper but there’s a captive audience of people who struggle to get out of a chair and who can no longer fart without fear.”

To be clear, this is hyperbole, albeit hyperbole built on a foundation of truth. The backdrop to all this is that younger audiences are more fickle and elusive than ever. TikTok and YouTube were regularly mentioned and are undoubtedly part of the solution. Yet they simply don’t have commissioners the way that TV companies do, nor anything like the same revenue opportunities for production companies. TVNZ released statistics last week which showed even streaming, one the future of the industry, flat to declining as far as audience goes.

What that says is that the expensive business of making professionally produced TV shows is losing to the chaos and pace of user-generated content for the global social platforms. And until this industry – from the talent at the TV awards to the producers in that conference room – really inhales that reality, they will continue to be fighting a losing battle. Those are simply the stakes of the decade, and ANZPM, NZ on Air and the whole TV industry must recognise that if it is to survive.

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

Keep going!