The changing media habits of young New Zealanders means our longest running kids’ show is undergoing its biggest change in years. Tara Ward finds out more.
When What Now returns in 2024, things may look a little different. Young viewers will still enjoy a fun hour-long episode of gunge and giveaways every Sunday morning on TVNZ2, but episodes will no longer be broadcast live or feature a live studio audience. That’s because the new year will see What Now become “digital first”, as the show focuses on developing its YouTube channel.
Producer Emma Martini told The Spinoff that What Now’s shift to digital content is indicative of the changing ways that young people access media. New Zealand youth have moved away from traditional forms of media at a great pace, preferring to use digital media and online video, and What Now recognises this. “We want to be where our tamariki are, which is very much online, watching content when they want,” Martini says, adding that she’s seen this shift in her own children’s viewing habits.
“The way they consume content that’s at their fingertips across many platforms – versus when I grew up and only had linear TV – means we must pivot.”
It’s a trend Martini has also witnessed in her own working life at What Now. Having been an avid fan of the show during the 1980s, her dream of working on What Now came true in the mid-90s when she was first employed as a production assistant. “My job was to open the mail, which back then was around 5,000 letters and competition entries a week,” she recalls. “We now get no mail. It’s all online entries, uploaded photos and online chat on Sundays, and we connect with viewers and parents through Facebook, Instagram and TikTok during the week.”
With the show’s audience already relying on digital media, next year What Now will become “digital first” and focus on growing and developing the show’s YouTube channel. Martini says they plan to put the “what?” back into What Now, by producing content that encourages viewers to keep coming back to the channel, whenever they want. She says much of what people see on TV now will still be available in the new format, with the same fun competitions, humour and messy gungefests, as well as more stories about Kiwi kids and their whānau, told with What Now’s typical humour and heart.
But the move to digital first means What Now will no longer broadcast live in front of a studio audience, marking the end of an era. What Now began broadcasting live in the 1980s, and other than some pre-recorded lockdown episodes and Christmas specials, has seen thousands of New Zealand kids enjoy their 15 minutes of fame as part of the enthusiastic live audience every week. Martini says the studio audience always added “energy and mayhem” to the live broadcast. “That’s always been a special part of it for me. Kids love being seen on screen.”
Those live broadcasts have often led to the show’s most memorable moments, including the epic live lockdown episode that saw Kerry Du Pont direct the show from his car while hosts Erin, Joseph and Stella filmed from their own homes. Martini even remembers filming What Now live from Disneyland, and has high praise for the Christchurch live studio crew, many of whom have worked on the show for years. “They are specialised at what they do, and it’s a real family fun environment in the studio every Sunday,” she says. “It is sad to say goodbye to that, and to them.”
While there was no formal announcement about the upcoming changes on last Sunday’s final episode for 2023, host Stella alluded to “changes going on behind the scenes”, while Du Pont said the show would still be “amazing, no matter how you see it”.
The changing state of New Zealand viewing habits means What Now must shift and evolve to stay relevant, but that’s something the show has done continually over the past 43 years. Martini is excited about the show’s move to digital, but she’s also aware of the enormity of this change for a show so beloved by many generations of New Zealanders.
“It’s a national treasure,” she says. “We will continue to look after it with care.”