It was a world first that fostered some of our finest young talent, so what the hell happened to TVNZ U? Five years since its closure, Alex Casey takes a look back at the little youth channel that could.
Simon Dallow appeared to be holding a dildo, Tim Batt was eating cat food straight out of the tin and the TVNZ atrium was filled with shouting 20-somethings. It was the last episode of U Late, in the dying days of channel TVNZ U, and it was total chaos. For two and a bit years, the hallowed halls of TVNZ’s gleaming mothership were a playground for New Zealand’s most exciting young talent. There was the guy from Squirt and two future Billy T winners, one of whom just won the Olympics of comedy in Edinburgh.
It was eccentric, electric, and then it was gone.
Five years later, here lies the complete-ish history of TVNZ U, as told by the presenters who wrecked their posture on that backless orange couch, and the people who took a massive swing to put them there. It was a couch that welcomed (fake) Jean Batten and (fake) Ernest Rutherford, (fake) Tom Cruise and (real) Steve-O, a couch that witnessed many K-Pop dances, a couch that supported local comedians, broadcasters and weirdos well beyond simply cushioning their butts. So, what the hell happened to the channel?
Oliver Sealy was the channel producer, previously working on the digital channels across at TVNZ 6 and 7. “We’d launched Heartland at that point and there was a really strong business case for starting up a youth channel.” In 2010, Select Live was winding down over on C4, Alt TV was working on the fringes up on K’Rd, and a plucky little social media website called Facebook was digging its thumbs into young people across the country. The time was right for something new.
The channel itself aimed to target 15-25 year olds, and was grounded almost exclusively in reality content. “That was a big part of the concept,” says Maria Mahony, who came onboard not long after Sealy. “We had action and extreme sports night, male skewing nights and female skewing nights. At that point, there weren’t as many shows like that in one place on TV.” But the flagship of the channel was always going to be the live show: U Live, a daily three hour music video show. And eventually U Late, but more about that later.
“It was obvious to us what we were trying to do with U Live – it was radio with pictures,” recalls Sealy, “but everyone else at TVNZ thought we were fucking crazy.” During early discussions about what U Live could be, a contact at Facebook expressed interested in facilitating an interactive on screen app – a world first. “We were lucky because Facebook was keen to use us a case study. Nobody had ever used it in the same way anywhere else,” says Mahony. “Facebook was still relatively new, it was for a much younger audience and wasn’t as well established.”
Wanting to take the show beyond a regular afternoon music rotation, the plan was to take typical Facebook engagement and put it on screen – not just the comments but names, profile pictures and locations, all collated in the U Live Facebook app. “People were already taking text and putting it on screen, but nobody was doing it in a way that was attributable to people’s social identity,” says Sealy. “We knew that if we did that, we could rise above the quagmire of shit-slinging that was happening anonymously online with the Herald and other media entities.”
The other big hurdle was cobbling together the technology for the low budget live show – a Wayne’s World affair with one presenter and one on screen producer. Sealy, alongside the first talent hire Matt Gibb, worked with a TVNZ engineer, Murray, to create a Frankenstein solution. “We built this system to vision switch live on set, control music videos and graphics all in one place,” says Sealy. “Murray mashed together a whole bunch of gear into this incredible piece of hardware and software.”
Having worked with TV operators in studio on shows like Studio 2 and Squirt, the move to a more automated system was a poignant one for Matt Gibb. “U Live arrived during a transformational time for television production, with a lot of staff in the craft side losing their jobs in favour of automation and job-sharing. For us to be making three hours of live TV in the atrium with two people running the entire show was a bit of a slap in the face to some of the people who’d worked their asses off over the years.”
It may have been offensive to some, but Murray’s hodge podge Tricaster technology would eventually become a surprising and crucial part of the breaking news machine at TVNZ. “It was really crazy because when the Christchurch earthquake hit, their entire newsroom got taken out,” recalls Sealy. “So TVNZ actually flew down U Live’s spare setup and used it to run the emergency newsroom down there. Within hours, they were back up and running.” It is still occasionally used for makeshift newsrooms today.
With all the technology lined up and Facebook onboard, the final element missing from the U Live magic potion was the talent. “We needed presenters who were able to write, to do research, to be good on camera but still be natural,” says Mahony. “We wanted them to be talking to the audience as friends rather than that typical broadcaster persona.” Sealy had already set his sights on an up and coming comedian called Rose Matafeo, but needed more young blood – so he activated the old boys’ phone tree.
“I rang Matt Heath, who was doing breakfast on bFM, and said ‘you’re too old, but do you know any young people?’ Without missing a beat, he told me that I had to meet Connor Nestor. Then we rang Nick Dwyer at George and asked him the same thing. He told us we had to meet Tim Lambourne.”
Matafeo remembers not really knowing what she was auditioning for or why she was there, only that she got the part. “I showed up to the official photoshoot with barely any makeup on and my curly hair slicked back like a freak, then it was all on baby.” Nestor recalls the show being sold to him as “a radio show on TV,” which was about all he needed. “I grew up watching C4 and loving all those guys, so I was over the moon.” Lambourne had been working on Nightline, but was tiring of the news grind.
The original four rehearsed for a month before U Live went live. It was during one of these afternoons that Lambourne says he realised his co-presenter Matafeo was going to be a huge comedy star. “Someone was playing around with the camera and there was this orange road cone just off set. Rose picked it up and started doing an exclusive interview with the VLC media player. It was the funniest thing I had seen in my life, I just completely lost it.”
“No one else knew what we were actually doing in the hallway for those first couple of weeks,” remembers Matafeo. “We’d often get kicked out because they’d have some sort of team building event they had to do in the atrium.”
U Live finally launched on March 13, 2011. “I’ll never forget the feeling of getting through those first three hours of U Live and just collapsing afterwards,” says Gibb. “It really did feel like running a marathon egg and spoon race. The producer of each show had to manage time, roll every video clip, cut the cameras, mix the sound, input and bring up graphics, monitor and moderate the Facebook app and select comments to go on air as well as take part in the conversation.”
The Facebook app was the great unknown, but the gamble quickly paid off. “We were all sitting there watching the app,” says Mahony, “and then suddenly people just started… using it, like it was a totally normal thing. We all let out this huge sigh of relief.” One fervent user was Renee Church, who was one of the U Live’s biggest fans. “I loved how interactive it was, it felt like a mutual collaboration,” she recalls. “It was amazing to hear them say my name and quite a cool validation for my teenage self.”
Within a month, the show had found its groove. “They all got really good, really fast,” says Sealy. “I always used to say to them ‘I hope you guys are appreciating the fact that you are making more TV in a week than most people make in a year’.” The growing Facebook app community gently began to inform both the music and the segments on the show, with everything from ‘The Sunday #roastreport’ and ‘Snack Time’ (users sending in pictures of what they were eating) to the famed ‘K-Pop at 6 o’clock’ (self-explanatory really).
“This guy on the app kept pestering us to play some Korean pop music,” says Lambourne. “Everyone knew that we could just go onto Youtube and rip video files live, so they could actually direct our show a bit.” One quiet Saturday show, they fulfilled his request and 6 o’clock never looked or sounded the same. “I just love the idea of a conservative white boomer coming home and seeing their teenager watching Korean pop music on a New Zealand television channel.
Another innovation within the app was the presence of the Murray cam, a dinky webcam set up to stream the presenters online – including during the ad breaks – named after the genius engineer who made it all happen. “That was a huge chance for the audience to get to know the presenters better,” says Mahony, “even the random tech guys who would walk past.” Renee Church remembers a quite different byproduct of the – ahem – streaming. “The hosts sometimes left their microphones on went they went to pee, so you could sometimes hear them peeing on the app.”
Matafeo says the app quickly felt like a very real online community across the country. “It was like the days of MSN chat rooms, where people just got to know each other every day. Eminem Jen was a legendary fan from Christchurch who would be on the app most days. She came up to me at a gig once, said hi, handed me a packet of Lady Finger biscuits because she knew I liked them, and left forever.” Church is still connected with the people she got to know through the U Live app.
“I really don’t think anyone quite appreciated that a world first was coming out of two 21 year-olds wheeling out the set every day, plugging it in and going live on Facebook,” says Sealy. “Sheryl Sandberg used us for about a year, all over the world, as a case study in her keynote about how broadcasters could effectively use Facebook.”
Eventually, people stopped asking them to leave the atrium to make room for team building exercises. “Everyone came to love having U Live around. The place was never more alive, and never felt more connected to the actual business of making television, than when we were doing it right in front of their fucking faces everyday in the atrium,” says Sealy. Eli Mathewson, who joined the hosting rotation later in the piece, remembers the generosity of the older TVNZ presenters who would often drop in for a chat.
“Simon Dallow, Greg Boyed, Matty McLean, Sam Kelway and Ruth Wynn-Williams would all stop in, with some of them even coming on the couch to hang out in the show. I think people knew we had been mostly left to our own devices and were pretty charmed by the weird stuff we ended up doing.”
There were no shortage of memorable moments created as U Live hit its stride. “Eli and I married Cam Jones from Shortland Street on air because we had a huge crush on him, then we weirdly went and saw Man of Steel with him after that,” remembers Matafeo. “It was basically a date.” Watching after school everyday, Renee’s favourite memory involved another TVNZ icon. “One time they pulled in Astar from Good Morning, and she sat there in a ball gown and talked about Dame Edna for seven minutes.”
With all the hosts in their early twenties, a recurring recollection was the challenge of broadcasting after A Large One. “Tim spewed in a rubbish bin behind the set after promising me he wasn’t hungover,” recalls Gibb. Mathewson and Kirsteen MacKenzie, another host to join later in the run, once hosted wearing sunglasses for a similar reason. “We called it ‘The Chill Show’, played very gentle music and talked very little.” Matafeo’s Everest came while hosting a Made In Chelsea marathon on a particularly rowdy weekend. “I don’t know if that was a beloved memory or a horrible one.”
As U Live plowed through sham marriages, spews and urination within the wholesome hours of 4-7pm, a stirring feeling was growing to let completely rip in a late night live show. “We were always a little constrained by the time slot of U Live,” says Sealy. “So we created another slot for a looser, riskier, fringier live show later at night.” Lambourne was keen to delve deeper into typical late night topics. “I was obsessed with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report at that time, and there wasn’t much else around trying to tackle local politics in a biting way.”
He found a co-host in longtime friend and sometimes U Live host Guy Montgomery, who returned from the comedy circuit in Canada to take up the job. “I told all these hungry young comics who I had started gigging with in Toronto about the circumstances. They couldn’t fathom the idea of being given the keys to host a late night television show, no matter how ramshackle.” Their perspective gave him the jolt he needed. “I realised ‘holy heck, this will probably never happen to me again’.”
Being on a digital channel and starting at 10.30 at night, Lambourne and Montgomery sat down with TVNZ’s lawyers to figure out just how much they could get away with on national television. “Once we figured out what we couldn’t do, we just did everything else,” says Lambourne. One of those early concepts was a daily segment called ‘Today’s Genitals’, where audience members could submit a photo of their exposed genitals next to a news story of the day. The news story would be discussed, and nothing else.
Sealy lovingly remembers overhearing Lambourne pitch the segment to TVNZ’s in-house censor. “She just said ‘why would you do that’ and he just said ‘because it’s funny’.” The segment launched to lacklustre submissions, and the hosts quickly realised they’d have to take matters into their own hands. “Every night at 9.45pm, Guy or I would go into the bathroom at TVNZ and take a photo of our genitals next to a news story and put it up on the screen as ‘John from Invercargill’.”
“We had to encourage our audience that it was a fine thing to do,” says Montgomery. “We somehow landed a handful of user-submitted images and once, in a real triumph for diversity, we were submitted a pair of breasts.” The next major milestone came during Colin Peacock’s Mediawatch review of the segment on RNZ. “I remember he thought it was the most clever, brilliant satire of modern news that he had ever come across,” says Sealy. “He had intellectualised it to such an outrageous degree, it was awesome.”
Never straying too far from matters of the nether regions, comedian Tim Batt’s recurring segment ‘Loo Revue’ was another deeply etched into the U Late cubicle door. “I had cooked up an idea of reviewing publicly available toilets,” says Batt. “Guy and I hadn’t met before the night I first went on and, in a move typical of his genius comic sensibilities, he whispered into my ear ‘hey man, just a heads up, I’m going to be really mean to you on air’ seconds before we were due to go live.”
“I appeared more and more dishevelled each time, eventually going on the telly wearing a garbage bag.” His on screen relationship with Montgomery also become increasingly estranged as time went on. “Loo Revue became this incredible character study,” says Montgomery. “Doing that segment every week was where we found our chemistry.” The pair later brought that dynamic to the wildly successful comedy podcast The Worst Idea of All Time.
“When TVNZ pulled the plug, we decided we wanted to continue doing something together if we could,” says Batt. “Guy came up with the idea of a movie review podcast where the movie never changes. One of us floated Grown Ups and Guy said ‘wouldn’t it be funnier if we did the sequel?’ The answer, of course, was yes.”
That wasn’t the only successful chemistry borne from the bubbling TVNZ U laboratory. The juggernaut improv troupe Snort, now mainstays at Auckland’s Basement Theatre late every Friday night, involved many of the comedians from the character-based sketch shenanigans of U Late. Whether it was Zoe Bell (Matafeo), Sam Neill (Nic Sampson), Kimbra (Matafeo again), Richard Taylor (Mathewson) or James Reid (Joseph Moore), batshit local characters on U Late became part of the furniture, and eventually formed their own improv show Kiwi Heroes.
“I remember when the guys let Nic Sampson and I host an episode as Ernest Rutherford and Jean Batten,” says Matafeo. “We figured out how to turn the cameras to sepia mode, and would have live updates to the Titanic from postcards we had received months ago. It was just so fun.”
Sadly, the rose and/or sepia tint faded one Monday morning in 2013. “We walked into the office and there was just enough of the corporate comms team there that we knew it was all over,” remembers Lambourne. It was Mon Barton’s first day on the job – she was replacing Matafeo, who had just gone to Three’s Jono and Ben – when they were told the channel was being shut down. “I was so stoked because I’d been wanting that job forever, and then they told us we had one month left. It was a real rollercoaster.”
“Ultimately, it was a numbers game and they had to pull the plug on it,” says Sealy. “We had a new CEO come in, Kevin Kenrick, who redid the strategy. TVNZ U didn’t necessarily make sense in regards to what the direction the company was heading in.” For a youth channel primarily built to create new advertising opportunities and use up the spectrum, it had achieved far more. “As with any business, people see value in different things,” says Mahony. “But I was sad, because we had established such a good brand on the smell of an oily rag and the growth of the talent was huge.”
To many, the closure was a huge mistake. “Had TVNZ kept that that talent and that editorial vision, it would be one of the most powerful media brands in the country right now,” says Sealy. “We would have reacted to all of the trends and taken a more online approach. It would have done whatever it needed, while still keeping its punky roots.” The most disappointing aspect for Gibb was that all the hosts were allowed to walk out the door. “It felt like TVNZ threw away a chance to get in on the ground floor with the next generation of local talent.”
“There was no olive branch extended, no attempt to grow our development further with TVNZ,” says Montgomery. “It irked me that they couldn’t see they were developing the next broadcasters for their station.” Batt called the move “the single stupidest decision” in New Zealand television. “The channel was building a stable of talented young presenters and drawing an audience TVNZ didn’t have access to back then. Putting a plus-one channel on the band was insult to injury for something so innovative.”
When approached for comment on TVNZ U’s closure, Kenrick was unavailable.
With an expiry date on TVNZ U, the hosts pushed the boundaries even further. “We took the cancellation as permission to indulge every foolish, adolescent, hedonistic whim we had,” says Montgomery. Barton recalls doing a show that was entirely banana themed. “People would just be going about their work days, and we’d be letting off confetti cannons and throwing bars of chocolate around.” Matafeo was allowed back from Mediaworks for the final few shows, and remembers the situation being very loose.
“I think we openly talked shit about the CEO on air, which went completely unnoticed as he did not watch the show at all.”
The final broadcast of U Live, airing Sunday the 31st August 2013, is still available to watch in full on Youtube. The microphones are broken, a myriad of people drift in and out, Nestor asks Matty McLean the mind-bending question: “Do you ever think the news will just… end?” It’s funny as hell, but there’s an air of melancholy. “It was the most unprofessional television ever made,” Matafeo says of the finale. “But it was really sad too. There was a complete restructure, so it was a tough time for heaps of people.”
U Live was played out with the closing song ‘Two Times’ by Ann Lee, before cutting abruptly to a static screen that said “TV 2 + 1 Coming Soon.”
Superfan Renee Church was distraught at the closure. “It was really upsetting, I still remember when my mum texted me the news at school.” After the final episode, she received a package of knick-knacks from the TVNZ U office. “It was really nice of them to do that, because it was an emotional time for me. I was always aware that I was very lucky to have it on TV, because I knew it couldn’t last forever.” Church headed to broadcasting school and is now an aspiring comedian living in Auckland. Funny that.
Although it may have been gone too soon, there’s no denying that TVNZ U was the ultimate broadcasting bootcamp for everyone involved. “It was an amazing skill to learn how to confidently speak on television, almost without thinking,” says Matafeo. “I think it made me relatively fearless.” Moderating the app also helped to toughen her up. “There is really no other situation where you’re simultaneously hosting a live television show and reading comments saying ‘you’re a piece of shit’”
“It changed my life completely,” says Lambourne. “I learned how to entertain and ask better questions and how to broadcast, basically. I couldn’t put a price on the experience I got in those two years, I am eternally grateful.” Montgomery describes experiencing his “metal puberty” during the U Late era. “I went from being an old teen to an adult. That period was what TVNZ U represented for me, a real hardening of ambition and resolve. I knew full well that the experience was invaluable.”
Even those who were there for a shorter time still sing the praises of TVNZ U. “I really enjoyed being part of team of such talented young people,” says MacKenzie, “There was always a sense of camaraderie and no competition.” Although he was there for the entirety of the channel’s life, Nestor isn’t even sure that TVNZ U really happened. “It’s just a big blur of the colour orange and chit chat with the other kids in the hallway. I don’t know how else to describe it. I have never talked so much nothing in my life.”
These days you’ll find Matafeo cleaning up in Edinburgh when she’s not fronting Funny Girls. Along with Montgomery, she’s also won the Billy T; Mathewson’s been nominated too. Montgomery, Lambourne and Mathewson have all gone on to host their own shows (Fail Army, Gateway to the Globe, The Male Gayz – the last two back with TVNZ). Nestor works in music management, Barton is on the digital team at Newshub, MacKenzie teaches kids about broadcasting in the small French town where she now lives.
“I can now tell them with conviction that anything is possible if you are optimistic and motivated – at least until your funding gets cut.”
There is a strong theory that New Zealand youth TV comes in waves. “There was Space in the 90s, C4 in the 2000s and TVNZ U in the teens,” says Lambourne. “To be the right age for that show and learning how to make live television and broadcast was such a privilege and an honour.” If his cyclical theory holds up, TVNZ’s Facebook-exclusive platform Re: fits the bill as we careen towards the tail end of the decade. But will anything be able to ever fill the hole that TVNZ U left?
“I still feel strongly that there’s no real media connection to youth culture in New Zealand and a voice to guide it,” says Nestor. “U was that for a short period of time, as niche and small as it was.” Matafeo remembers loving the chaos of Triangle TV, Ice TV and Alt TV. “Those small local broadcast shows where you could see people be real and fun and wild definitely paved the way for what we did with U Live. Sadly, I think when it finished it was the end of an era, in broadcast TV at least.” If not broadcast TV, the opportunity could well present itself elsewhere.
“I truly hope we see something like it happen again, because it was the most goddamn fun I’ve ever had in my life.”
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.