Summer read: No scripts, new presenters and a comms meltdown moments before it went to air. Here’s how the Vaxathon came together.
First published on October 23, 2021.
When the definitive history of New Zealand’s Covid-19 pandemic is written, October 16 2021 will go down as one of the few wholly positive days of the entire experience. What threatened to be an embarrassing lame duck turned out to be an unqualified success: by the end of Super Saturday 129,995 vaccinations had been delivered across 783 sites, with 10,941 Māori getting their first dose, and 4,223 Pasifika getting theirs.
The key engine behind Super Saturday was the Vaxathon. The event, announced to the public on October 12, just five days out, was inspired by the Telethon extravaganzas of the 70s, 80s and 90s. An eight-hour live broadcast, its sole aim was to encourage the country to hit the 100,000 single-day vaccination target set by prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
Expectations were initially low – the word “telethon” does not inspire a huge amount of hope – but the reactions on the day were joyous. The earnest cheesiness inherent to the form was there, but with a sense of everybody mucking in: we’re all doing this together, so we can all get back to a sense of normality.
It started with a phone call.
A month out from the broadcast, Sonny Ngatai received a call from Tamati Shepherd-Wipiiti, who in normal times is a senior health consultant with PwC but is currently on secondment to the Ministry of Health. Shepherd-Wipiiti was the mastermind behind Super Saturday – a day when the country could put its full weight behind getting as many people vaccinated as possible.
It was one of many phone calls Shepherd-Wipiiti made to get Super Saturday across the line, but this was the first specifically about the Vaxathon. “I was at home in lockdown, and then I get this call,” says Ngatai, a youth TV presenter, te reo advocate and TikTok star. “‘Hey bro, just thought of this idea called ‘the Vaxathon’,” Ngatai remembers Shepherd-Wipiiti saying, “but I have no idea how to do it. I think you do. Can you help me?’”
Shepherd-Wipiiti had the bones of the Vaxathon idea. “It was my role to put the meat on those bones,” says Ngatai. “Someone else described me as having the vision, and the arm, for the Vaxathon.” From that point, his job was getting people onboard. While he had doubts about the tight time frame and that his own presenting role would be too much of a challenge, he soldiered on.
“The initial conversations were trying to help people see the incredible vision we had for this idea. One of the hard things was just trying to convince people that telethons are still cool. We weren’t gaining donations, we were counting the amount of people getting vaccinated throughout the broadcast. That made it a really interesting and even competitive part of the Vaxathon, and people were keen to see that and be a part of it.”
In the afterglow of the day, Ngatai says its success can be ascribed to the joy of being part of something together, as a nation. “It was such a big idea, it really required the collaboration and partnership of multiple people and agencies. We just knew that whenever someone was keen to jump on board, they were like, ‘Yep, I want to be part of this big, big thing too.’”
One of those people was Bailey Mackey. He’s a veteran TV producer who heads up Pango, a TV production company with a Māori storytelling focus. A week out from broadcast, Larry Parr, the CEO of Crown entity Te Māngai Pāho, reached out to gauge his interest in being involved in running the live show. Luckily for all concerned, it wouldn’t be Mackey’s first run at a marathon broadcast, having produced the telethon after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011.
The next day, Mackey got a call from Ngatai saying “we’re good to go,” Mackey says. “Sonny went, ‘We don’t have any platforms, we don’t have any talent, all we know is that we just want to run this event.’ And I was like, ‘OK, cool.’”
He woke up the following morning, went to a rugby game, then started making frantic phone calls. He knew he had to get the technical stuff sorted before he focused on content. Mackey estimates he made about 20 phone calls, through which he secured the talents of Adrianne Sorenson at TVNZ, who recently produced the Paralympics, and Stacey Kearns, a veteran sports producer. Neither of them flinched at the job ahead of them, nor at the incredibly short timeframe.
From then, the biggest step was getting network buy-in. This couldn’t just be a drip-feed on one channel, it had to be full saturation. TV networks, especially those with a commercial prerogative, don’t like to share. Competition doesn’t lead to easy collaboration but, says Mackey, “I was clear from the get-go that this was a platform agnostic broadcast so we all had to play nice to get in.”
Every 24 hours they managed to get a new platform signed up. At first, the Vaxathon was just to be broadcast on Three and Māori TV, but TVNZ joined in, followed by Iwi Radio, Stuff and the NZ Herald. “I was able to convince all of these partners to buy into the greater good of getting our country’s vaccination rates up,” says Mackey. “Everyone was gracious, nobody pushed back.”
When he received a random text from his South Auckland crew complaining about only having Sky Sport microphones to use, he replied: “Look, I don’t care. There are greater things for us to worry about right now.”
The technical side was sorted. The platforms were lined up. The next job: sorting out the talent. Mackey was determined that, because the goal of the Vaxathon was to get Māori and Pasifika rates of vaccination up, they couldn’t just use established talent. They had to offer something new.
Ngatai was one of those fresh faces, as was Sky Sport’s Narelle Sindos, and Anna Harcourt, the news director for TVNZ youth platform Re. For Harcourt, the Vaxathon posed a daunting challenge: it was her first time fronting live TV – and it would be an eight-hour broadcast.
Harcourt got the call up on the Thursday, and had less than 48 hours to learn how to do the job. “We had four hours at Avalon studio on Friday afternoon, and we just practised an introduction and… that was it,” she says. The night before, she stayed up “doing a whole bunch of research” on all the guests because she still didn’t know exactly who was going to be interviewing which guest, or when.
Mackey also reached out to what he calls “the uncles” – TV veterans like Gower and Julian Wilcox. With Wilcox, it was as simple as a text conversation:
“Up2 on Saturday?”
“Not much, what’s on?”
“Eight hours of live TV for Vaxathon? You got me?”
“Sweet, I’m there bro.”
One of the most famous faces on the broadcast, give or take a prime minister or pop star, was Taika Waititi. Mackey, who is mates with the actor-director-writer, managed to secure his availability for the entire broadcast. Waititi is responsible for some of the most memorable moments of the broadcast, from assuring us that the government isn’t going to turn us into a cellphone, to offering to ask the Rolling Stones to play in New Zealand as a vaccination incentive.
When it came to the talent decisions, Mackey was especially thoughtful. He initially preferred not to include politicians, but eventually conceded some political heft was needed. One of the criticisms of the Vaxathon was that it lacked representation from the opposition, and the politicians featured on the broadcast were the same ones we see up on the podium at 1pm every day.
Mackey says he was open to including non-government politicians – David Seymour in particular made himself available – but he knew he had to keep a laser focus on the key demographic: Māori and Pasifika in the 20-34 age bracket. “We had to make some pretty brutal decisions and cuts. If you look at the areas we went to, these are all places with lots of Māori and Pasifika people. If whoever was available wasn’t speaking to that demo, we had to be judicious.
“If you can get the right people in place, that matters the most.”
If you watched the Vaxathon, you know it went off with barely a hitch. The hosts, from Jason Gunn – a broadcast veteran who has probably spent more of his life on camera than off – to newcomer Harcourt, were charismatic, winning and cool as refrigerated cucumbers. There was barely a spot of dead silence as the broadcast cut across six sites, including Kaitaia, South Auckland, Ōtautahi and Porirua. From the moment Ngatai said: “I know what you’re thinking. Who is this guy? I don’t know who I am either!”, cameras were rolling and vaccinations were being counted.
Just before that, though, disaster had struck. Three minutes out, they lost all communications. The crew ended up having to cue each other via telephone, including Waititi, who was having issues connecting with the team. Mackey describes the field producers as having a meltdown. When it was resolved, however, it was smooth sailing. “Suddenly, you’re in a truck and up pops Taika in LA, up pops Kaitaia and your heart skips a few beats.”
Mackey had picked up a tip from Lindsay Benbrook, the floor manager for the original Telethon back in 1977: “Don’t script it all.” The Vaxathon, as a result, only scripted two hours of content, and then they rinsed and repeated it. In the studio however, it felt completely unscripted. It had to be in the Avalon Studio, at least: they couldn’t fly the autocue down from Auckland.
That free flowing structure ended up being an asset for Harcourt, who managed her job like a pro. “They were really clear with us that there were no set scripts. There’s no set schedule. Everybody is just going to go with the flow.
“What that means is that three minutes in, you just do it. Five minutes in, you just do it. Two hours in, you just do it. I didn’t have to remember anything! All I had to do was react.”
Her performance even earned the praise of Ashley Bloomfield, who didn’t just film his studio segment and leave but stuck around to cheer lead and chat. Harcourt thinks Super Saturday was something of a day of celebration for the director general of health. “He just had a great vibe.”
The rest is history. Paddy Gower joined TikTok, Brodie Kane announced she would like to pash a man over summer, Miss Geena wanting “menseses [sic] to rub her titties in”, Lorde shared her bakery cravings, and Ngatai himself even got behind the camera.
But how do you measure the success of something like the Vaxathon? An eight-hour broadcast might bring smiles to people’s faces, and enough content for a thousand supercuts (or at least one), but if it’s not getting Pfizer into arms, then it’s all a bit pointless.
Shepherd-Wipiiti says it was a game of two halves: the Vaxathon needed Super Saturday, and Super Saturday needed the Vaxathon. “On the supply side, Super Saturday was all about having the 550-plus providers who can vaccinate be open with lots of open appointments. But we needed demand. I think we would have had a strong demand on Super Saturday, but with the Vaxathon, we amplified that demand.”
Mackey just looks at the numbers. “Twice as many Māori as any other day, and in the 20-34 bracket over 40,000 got vaccinated. I sit back and go, ‘I’d like to think we played a role in helping those numbers get there’.”
There’s also the sense of being involved in something big. “The team of five million” is a phrase that has been thrown around a lot lately, but when the population of our largest city is still stuck inside, and meeting loved ones from a distance, it’s hard to feel like you’re a part of a team. In one smiley, giddy eight-hour stretch of television, the Vaxathon solved that problem. We can be a part of the team by doing our part, getting our jab, or convincing someone to get theirs.
Ngatai describes the Vaxathon with a Māori saying: “Nā tō rourou, nā tōku rourou, ka ora ai te iwi.” It’s about pitching in. “It rings very true in this setting: with the contributions from you, and the contributions from me, our people can live.”
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