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OPINIONOpinionJuly 19, 2016

Terry Teo signals the end of the NZ on Air model as we know it (and that’s fine)

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Terry Teo was taxpayer-funded to the tune of $1.3m, helmed by a director fresh off a hit film and has been raved about by critics. TVNZ’s appalling treatment of the show will come back to haunt them, writes Duncan Greive.

Update: TVNZ have announced that Terry Teo will air in primetime after all

A New Zealand show debuted last week which had the critics losing their minds. “It’s a wonderful thing and by all rights, this show should be a smash hit” “not just the best kids’ show made in New Zealand in the last 10 years, it’s the best TV show full stop.”

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This is deeply weird, because on the whole our local productions tend to elicit a response on a spectrum between polite, slightly strained applause and rage. The show they’re talking about is Terry Teo, a kinetically energetic, deeply stylised and terrifically entertaining remake-in-name-only of a local ‘80s production.

The thing was made with $1.3m of your money, so it’s good that people love it – if you’re going to be forced to buy something, it’s better if it’s something good, something you might actually want.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that this excellent production was commissioned to air on TVNZ, but ended up being buried on TVNZ OnDemand after the channel decided that it was too racy for children. NZ On Air are said to be furious, but reportedly have only managed to get a vague promise that the show will be broadcast at some point after its online run is completed. The fear here, of course, is that it will be shunted into an airless corner of the schedule rather than displayed for all to see in prime-time.  

This is deeply fucked up on a number of levels. Firstly, as Matt Heath pointed out in his account of watching it with his young children, it’s got absolutely no problem any rational person would have with airing in kid’s time. Secondly, the script and staging were reportedly approved by TVNZ the whole way through – nothing is materially different. They simply changed their minds. Which is ridiculous.

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Finally, and this is the crux of the problem, we’re now $1.3m poorer, and an outstanding production now has no hope of reaching the kind of audience it was intended for, without any recourse or comeuppance for the giant, autocratic organisation which created this whole imbroglio.

Even more so than the giant turd that was Filthy Rich, the Terry Teo saga illustrates perfectly what has for so long been broken about the stranglehold television has had on funding in this country. The concentration of the power to direct tens of millions of dollars in funding in the hands of a tiny group of unelected commissioners and programmers, whose audience shrinks every year has produced terrible outcomes for the New Zealand public. It cannot continue, and thanks to Terry Teo, surely it won’t.

So in some ways we should be thankful to the morons whose delicate sensibilities declared this show too raunchy for our kids. They’ve essentially made the rumoured radical re-imagining of NZ on Air’s funding system a fait accompli, and one they cannot possibly mount a plausible argument against.

The rumours are rife that later this year all funding will become platform agnostic. That is to say, if you can prove an audience on any free-to-access medium, you can apply for any one of of NZ on Air’s funding tranches. Which means and their 2m+ strong audience are level with TVNZ and MediaWorks. Even  – and this piece is clearly self-serving, but what are you going to do? – the little shits at The Spinoff can have a go. Where we might previously have been limited to the tiny pottle of money allocated to digital projects, now all New Zealand’s online media might be able to pitch ideas to the funding body.

This should be a godsend to NZ on Air. No longer are their fortunes tightly bound to the whims and tastes of TV programmers and their ever-narrowing view of what an audience might want, or the ageing audience which still sits down and pops on the TV at night just like their grandparents did (and still do).

Now they’ll be able to fund more innovative and far-reaching shows, without the implausibly large budgets demanded to make drama and documentaries for television. And in all likelihood you’ll see that the arrogant assumption that only television can generate the kind of audiences required to justify this funding obliterated.

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TVNZ might argue that their placing Terry Teo purely online proves that this is already happening. But the problem is not that online is a bad or a small audience, but that this was neither developed nor executed with an online audience in mind. What’s more, it is so clearly obvious that Terry Teo is not a priority for the network – we only heard about the show from TVNZ after asking about it directly, just a couple of weeks out from its debut.

By contrast NZ on Air-funded projects for Stuff or RNZ or the Herald will be likely the best-funded and most important at their organisations, and therefore accorded an appropriately central status to their platforms.

If this is indeed the world we’re walking into – and both logic and furious industry rumour suggests it is – then Terry Teo might be seen not as the last great balls up of a past-it funding system, but as a sacrificial lamb which saved the whole edifice.

Update: TVNZ have announced that Terry Teo will air in primetime after all

Watch Terry Teo on TVNZ On Demand

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