Ethan Sills has a radical solution for NZ on Air’s long-running drama problem: letting the public be more involved in choosing which shows get funded.
Public funding hasn’t had a great few years here in New Zealand. Since the end of Outrageous Fortune and the cast swap on Go Girls, many local dramas this decade have more-or-less failed, none lasting past three seasons. This year in particular has been dismal, with the mega-expensive Filthy Rich proving a mega-flop, while more recently it was announced the rebooted Terry Teo will be shoved online as it’s not family-friendly enough for a 6PM broadcast slot.
All these failures have left NZ on Air and local broadcasters in a state of fright, seemingly terrified of risk. Trinity Point, TV3’s planned Home and Away-inspired soap opera, was denied funding last December in lieu of a third season of Midsomer Mur – sorry, Brokenwood Mysteries, leaving Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside as the only local drama on the channel.
As a result, local scripted television has become pretty stale. It’s a problem that lies with no one organisation: NZ on Air doesn’t decide which shows get pitched to them or how they get treated, but the networks apparently only pitch shows they think will get funded.
Whoever is to blame, it leaves us viewers with a dreary palette of options. New Zealand dramas are not inherently terrible, but too often there is nothing gripping, or even remotely interesting, about them. They feature predominantly white casts (despite our most popular movies suggesting different tastes) and tell stories that focus on first world problems, with heavy doses of melodrama and random nudity (if TV3 had promised a higher arse-per-episode ratio, I’m sure Trinity Point would be in production by now). The shows that do get commissioned nearly all come from the same few writers, which means our dramas tend to look and sound the same. Even the titles feel repetitive: Outrageous Fortune, Filthy Rich, Dirty Laundry.
The result: people have simply stopped caring about local drama. In a brief Facebook/Twitter/work poll, most people I spoke to were entirely dismissive of New Zealand programming. Several had fond memories of Outrageous Fortune or the early seasons of Go Girls, but most struggled to even name a drama series that wasn’t one of those two.
Given that these shows are taxpayer funded, with millions of our dollars going into them, you would think that they would better reflect what New Zealand audiences actually wanted. The fact that so many viewers are disinterested in – or actively dislike – the programmes we fund can’t help but suggest those in charge of using our money are failing to do their jobs properly. We should have local television we can be proud of, not scoff at and ignore in favour of overseas alternatives.
There has to be a better way of handling our money. And, as it turns out, there could be: let the public decide.
While viewers choosing which shows are made may sound more like libertarian fantasy than anything grounded in reality, the idea slowly seems to be catching on. In Australia, state broadcaster ABC recently aired six different comedy pilots under the Comedy Showroom banner and are now seeking feedback from the public as to which of them deserves to go to series. It follows a similar practice from streaming service Amazon, which asks its paying customers to vote on which pilots they want to see more of; the ones nobody is interested in get dropped.
There’s a strong case to be made for NZ on Air, and the channels they serve, opening their doors and letting the public have a say. We are the people they are trying promote these shows to, after all. Do executives really know what the public wants better than we know ourselves?
Look at TV One’s Sunday Theatre, for example. I don’t think there is a great public demand for a Jean Batten telemovie, yet every year NZ on Air spends millions funding these one-off dramas that recount moments from our past, even if they only happened a few years ago. They rate well enough since they are on TV One and half their audience hasn’t changed the channel in the last 50 years, but is a moderately rating, one-off biopic on a Sunday night the best use of $3.2 million in tax payer funding? That is about a third of what TV3 was asking for for Trinity Point.
I’m sure that the broadcasters, or NZ on Air, undertake focus groups or market research before deciding what to commission. But filming several pilots and allowing the public to pick their favourites would let the people holding the purse strings know if the audience is actually there. Most importantly, if the public got to choose what they wanted to watch then they’d likely end up actually watching it.
The notion that everything needs to appeal to the broadest possible audience seems to linger within the New Zealand television industry. Executives are clearly terrified that their ratings will dry up if they put anything other than a dramedy on primetime TV. Last year Jemaine Clement said that he still pitches ideas to TVNZ but continues to be rejected despite his international success. No wonder he goes and makes them in America instead.
TV execs might be right to be wary of ‘niche’ programming, but that’s why public voting makes sense: they’ll know whether a niche show works or not. People may argue that shows like Transparent don’t have mainstream popularity – but guess what, people voted for this to exist. It’s one of the biggest success stories from Amazon Studios and their public-voting model, which has also produced successes like Mozart in the Jungle and The Man in the High Castle – both quirky genre shows that have done extremely well.
Forbrydelsen might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but in its homeland of Denmark, where the population is only a million more than ours, it rated through the roof, as did Borgen and The Bridge. Sure, your stereotypical Southland-bred farmer might not love complicated crime drama, but I wouldn’t call a show that’s a hit with a fifth of a country’s population ‘niche’. Just look at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead: they are easily the two biggest shows in the world right now (Thrones averages 23 million viewers a week in the US alone across all platforms) and both are distinctly ‘genre’ shows.
I’m not saying that every show has to be quite as niche as say Mr Robot. The Cult and This is Not My Life were two local stabs at ‘high concept’ television, and neither met with much success – but at least they took a risk. If you look at the line-up of new shows coming to American network TV, it’s clear that high concept or genre programming is no longer the sole domain of premium cable networks, like HBO, or streaming services like Amazon. New Zealand networks should learn to embrace genre, and public voting could help them make that leap. At a bare minimum, it’d help them realise there is more to successful television than endless light dramedies.
Which leads to another issue: most of these shows are written by the same few people. Together and separately, James Griffin, Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan have either created or written for a large chunk of our publicly funded dramas since 2000, including Go Girls, Nothing Trivial, Maddigan’s Quest, Filthy Rich, Outrageous Fortune, Westside, The Almighty Johnsons, Dirty Laundry, Mercy Peak, Step Dave, Brokenwood Mysteries, When We Go to War and The Blue Rose.
The fault doesn’t lie with them. With limited funds at their disposal, it makes sense that networks would rely on the same few people to come up with their shows, and the writers can hardly be blamed for that. But relying on such a tiny talent pool does mean there is little variety in tone or content between all these shows. Creating a pilot season would allow broadcasters to experiment with new writers without fear that a lack of experience – or brand recognition – might somehow hinder the show’s success.
The networks wouldn’t even need to use valuable space on their limited schedules to give this a go. They can throw the pilots up online, saving primetime slots for the finished products. Or if they wanted to go bigger, TV One could stop giving every famous New Zealander their own telemovie and instead use the Sunday Theatre slot to run some more adventurous one-off pieces. The telemovie-to-full series formula has worked in Australia, with Offspring getting six seasons after a well-received telemovie pilot, while the Rebecca Gibney-led Winter was spawned from the 90-minute The Killing Field. Why not produce several lower-budget, standalone movies, some of which could be resurrected into full series once the public has had their say?
It could be argued that it would be a waste of tax payer money to produce multiple pilots that won’t go to series, but I think it is a bigger waste of money to continue producing the same-old dramedies that few seem to watch or want.
The pilots ABC have aired might not all be of spectacularly high quality, but at least they are trying to get the public involved. NZ on Air and local networks are up against ever increasing competition. If they want their shows to be more than just timeslot-fillers, they need to foster better relationship with their audiences. Asking the public to take part in the selection process would do that – leading, hopefully, to better ratings. It is our money, after all: there’s no reason we should have to wait until it’s been spent to tell them we never wanted what they were offering in the first place.
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