Commissioners are among the most powerful and coveted roles in television. Suddenly, after years of little movement, there are five vacancies.
Two stories hit players in the local television industry hard and in quick succession. The first came early in July when TVNZ announced the departure of its longtime head of scripted, Kathleen Anderson. Then, two weeks later, an even bigger bombshell: the resignation of Three’s longtime chief content officer Andrew Szusterman.
Both were huge for their organisations. Anderson was across the core of TVNZ’s local identity – its premium, high-budget scripted drama, and Shortland St, its iconic soap and the single most important property for TVNZ 2. Szusterman had driven the successful move toward emphasising multi-night reality TV, along with a lineup of local comedy, as the core of Three’s public face.
All of a sudden, after years spent exerting outsize influence over what New Zealand saw of itself on the small screen, each was gone. And with their departures came great risks and opportunities.
There are few jobs in New Zealand television more coveted and influential than that of commissioner. They decide which shows get made – and which don’t. From the outside, their jobs appear exciting, the mythic encapsulation of everything which makes the industry one of the world’s most glamourous. Most jobs in television aren’t like that: you’re scheduling advertising or cutting promos. But commissioners are everything TV sells itself to the public as embodying – they wield enormous power, and really do dictate what we see.
Yet that if anything undersells their importance to the local screen production industry. Their taste, their instincts, their trusted relationships – commissioners define whether companies are flush or floundering, careers advance or atrophy.
A couple of years ago I spoke to a number of writers and showrunners about the state of commissioning, and the response of one has stayed with me, evoking just how large commissioners loomed in their lives. He described the feeling of taking two “exciting, innovative” ideas to a network exec, and pitching to them in person.
Within five minutes or less, you’d know those ideas were dead in the water. Because you had a business to run, family to feed and a mortgage to pay, you’d have to take advantage of that audience with the Pope. So you’d ask “So what did you have in mind?”
The commissioner would describe, say, a size nine brown shoe. And because you had a business to run, you’d say, of course, “what a coincidence! Guess what we’ve got in development – a size 9 brown shoe!”
Part of the issue has been that, like Popes, commissioners tend to stay in their roles for long periods of time. This is a problem endemic in the New Zealand media, with many of the most important gate-keeping roles occupied for years, even decades, leading to despair and often ultimately resignation by those waiting for their shot. Both for those waiting to take on those jobs, or whose job it is to get those commissioners to greenlight their projects.
All this is to signal just how extraordinary this moment is – right now we have a once-in-a-generation set of roles opening at our two biggest free-to-air broadcasters. These jobs, which will have an outsize impact on how New Zealand sees itself on screen, all vacant at the same time. For those who’ve been biding their time, wanting more commissioning control, it’s a major opportunity to step up and show how you might do things differently. For those who’ve been pitching to this same small pool for years, it’s loaded with excitement and fear. Those who’ve struggled to get commissioned will be hoping things are changing. Those who’ve banked on long, tight relationships with networks and execs will be praying things don’t.
On July 18, an email went out from Spada, the association representing screen producers in New Zealand, advertising four roles at TVNZ. They were commissioners for Māori and Pasifika, Tamariki and Heihei (its children’s platform), Shortland St and drama and scripted comedy. Four roles, three of them brand new (Māori and Pasifika already existed). Meanwhile Three has an opening for the “major architect” of its content strategy, and have confirmed to The Spinoff that this will be an exception to its signal of not replacing non-essential roles.
Szusterman is a huge loss – Three led in 25-54 for months earlier in the year, a network first, driven by the success of the tentpole multi-night reality franchises. With the highly touted Nevak Rogers moving up to TVNZ’s GM local content in June, there will be new faces in a minimum of six key positions when Szusterman finishes up in October.
These openings are not the only major changes in the commissioning landscape. The most recent NZ on Air factual funding round saw 12 different platforms receive funding, including five projects for Stuff and three for the Herald, while RNZ is another significant new commissioner. As recently as 2016, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a funding round to feature just three total platforms funded. Which is to say that in addition to the new roles opening up, there are far more commissioners than before.
Unfortunately, as The Spinoff recently reported, the total NZ on Air and RNZ budgets remain stuck underneath a 30-year real decline. Which means that the budgets doled out and scale of what can be funded is limited, absent any increase in government funding. There have been bright spots lately, notably the $1.7m devoted to Creamerie, a dystopian sci-fi comedy from the Flat 3 team. They are representative of a diverse group of creators who have long struggled to break through from web series and other smaller projects into the kind of budgets which have often seemed reserved for a particular generation of writers and showrunners.
Those who have watched from the sidelines for years will be hoping that this sudden opening in these critical roles, along with the great flowering of online platforms, is a sign that change is coming to an industry which has long seemed slow to adopt it. Those who have benefited from relationships with the recently departed, and the structure of this system, will be scrambling to adapt to this looming new world.
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