(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPop CultureJune 12, 2024

NZ’s Best Homes is the opposite of Sunday. Maybe that’s why it’s working

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Initial ratings show the flashy replacement for TVNZ’s Sunday has done exactly what the broadcaster would have hoped. Stewart Sowman-Lund asks what that does for the argument to fund current affairs.

When TVNZ announced it would be dumping its long-running current affairs show Sunday, there was an understandable outpouring of frustration. The last source of long-form, investigative current affairs on TV ditched because it wasn’t deemed profitable enough. Profitable enough, because Sunday was still making money (TVNZ is expecting an underlying loss of between $28 million and $33m in the 2024 financial year). Staff at TVNZ were understandably disappointed by the decision to cancel the show, saying a healthy democracy “relies on the ability of experienced journalists to decipher, in-depth, the state of our country, our identity, and to hold power to account”. Viewers, including former prime minister Helen Clark, were also upset.

In place of Sunday is a new six-part property show fronted by British broadcaster Phil Spencer of Location, Location, Location fame that takes viewers inside the most unattainably lavish houses in New Zealand, from Queenstown to Piha. 

The first episode aired on Sunday and while basically every outlet wrote about the show ahead of broadcast (The Spinoff included), there hasn’t been a lot of coverage since. Did anybody watch it? Or did thousands turn away in protest? Turns out, a lot of people tuned in. Figures provided by TVNZ show the premiere episode of NZ’s Best Homes with Phil Spencer had an average audience of 490,000 – almost half a million people. Notably, that was more than the 473,900 who tuned into the final episode of Sunday last month (the figure rose to just over 500,000 later on, but TVNZ says it will take about two weeks to get consolidated numbers for NZ’s Best Homes).

The show itself is fine, entertaining even. Host Phil Spencer is as charming as viewers would expect. The homes are as elaborate and grand as you would want. It’s basically the exact opposite of everything Sunday was. Sunday was challenging to watch, routinely telling stories that just wouldn’t be told anywhere else. It could never be described as comfort television, which is precisely what NZ’s Best Homes sets out to be, allowing a glimpse behind the doors (literally) of our most wealthy. Perhaps, like my colleague Madeleine Chapman wrote yesterday, there’s a sort of “money porn” allure about a show like this in the current cost of living climate.

Phil Spencer and some very big windows (Photo: TVNZ)

But crucially, for TVNZ, it’s so obvious that this show is targeted at an overseas market. Speaking to the Herald recently, Spencer said he didn’t want his programme to “show New Zealanders around New Zealand”. That may be the case, but the first episode did include him describing the black sands of Piha and discussing the commute from the Hibiscus Coast to Auckland city like a travel agent pitching Aotearoa to the world. The show was produced by Perpetual Entertainment for the UK and Australia as well, and I can see the show doing quite well in both territories. The company has a history of plonking a well-known face in a different country and then airing the show in both – it recently made a series with Bill Bailey in Australia. It’s clearly a format that works.

In this sense, the show was always going to be a success for TVNZ because it mattered less whether anybody here paid attention. We’ve sort of been here before, too. When Campbell Live ended in 2015, there were quite literally protests in the street. MediaWorks, then the owners of TV3, replaced it with a cringeworthy local version of Come Dine with Me. It didn’t work, but the intentions were the same – take something popular overseas, put it in a traditional current affairs slot, and see if more people will tune in. This time, the local viewers have bought in, with the bonus of international appeal.

Come Dine With me
Remember Come Dine With Me NZ…? (Photo: Kelvin Taylor)

TVNZ won’t say what its next Sunday evening show will be once NZ’s Best Homes wraps up, though confirmed it will be a local production. But the fact it has proved the audience will come for a show like this is a boon for the broadcaster. The week after Sunday wrapped, TVNZ aired a repeat documentary that pulled in half as many viewers as the debut of NZ’s Best Homes, proving that a big audience on a Sunday night isn’t guaranteed, even for TVNZ1. While people bemoan the demise of current affairs, it’s easy to see why a broadcaster would choose to invest its time and money into something like NZ’s Best Homes. It’s easier to make, requires fewer resources, has an inbuilt global audience – and rates better to boot. 

There’s something a bit sad about all of this. Not just the fact people would rather watch a rich man show people around rich people’s houses than spend an hour in the company of agenda-setting journalism, but that TVNZ can’t (or won’t) offer both options. As Newsroom’s Tim Murphy wrote recently, it feels counterintuitive for the state broadcaster to choose to cancel programmes that “do what many viewers and politicians might expect TVNZ to be doing”. Then again, readers often tell journalists they really value in-depth reporting on tricky subjects like climate change, but the clicks don’t always back that up. In that sense, NZ’s Best Homes is the television equivalent of clickbait. I guess that’s something I can understand.

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