New Zealand is rightly proud of the multi-cultural society it’s growing into. But why are there still minimal Māori, Pacific and Asian populations in prime time? And why does cultural representation in the film industry remain light years ahead of television? In the second part of a two-part series, Sonia Gray tries to find out.
A glimpse into our collective 2016 living rooms reveals a nation staring into the cold glow of their mobile phones. Broadcast networks, both here and overseas, are doing all they can to lift those eyeballs back to the medium-sized screen in the corner of the room. But with so many of these people failing to find a reflection of themselves on television, the quest to get them to ‘tune in’ feels Herculean.
Could diversifying our storytelling be the secret to injecting new life into a struggling medium?
The problem with ethnic diversity on television is that it is notoriously difficult to quantify. You could have all the colours of the Pantone chart represented onscreen, but if each one isn’t allowed to tell their stories in meaningful ways, the gesture feels token.
While we’ve made much progress, homegrown ethnically-driven shows are still absent from our mainstream prime time. You have to go all the way back to Bro’town (2004-2008) to find a series which used culture as its driving force and had enough network support to be successful and find a place in the common consciousness. The thing is, as well as being great for our culture, more diversity could also be good for business.
The New Zealand film industry resembles the TV world turned upside down. Instead of avoiding cultural stories, our best films have embraced, explored and celebrated them (and made a bunch of money doing so). Seven of our top 10 grossing locally-produced movies are ethnically-driven (and the eighth, What We Do In The Shadows, has a Māori director in Taika Waititi).
You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of New Zealanders who haven’t seen Whale Rider, Sione’s Wedding or Once Were Warriors. These films are all centred around a minority culture, but would never be considered ‘niche’. Addressing racial identity only served to enhance their appeal, with the added bonus of exposing viewers to ideas and experiences they otherwise might never know.
In New Zealand culture and society, the experiences of Pākehā have always been considered representative of the whole population – standards by which non-Pākehā are also supposed to measure their lives. Our film industry has already emerged from this trap, and it appears the American television industry is starting to do the same.
After sustained pressure from minority groups, US TV networks have been scrambling to make their programming slates more diverse. The result is that shows like Empire, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Jane the Virgin and many more have been allowed entry onto the prime time playing field. Empire – with an almost exclusively African-American cast – is Fox’s biggest rating series for three years. Over at ABC, former Chief of Entertainment Paul Lee said “When you see shows now that seem to lack diversity, they feel dated. America just doesn’t look like that anymore.” Even academic studies show that ethnic diversity makes good business sense.
Since broadcast TV is an historically reactive business, one would hope it’s only a matter of time before New Zealand television jumps on the diversity train. We have the talent and the stories to support such a shift. But it would mean combating a long-standing, hard-to-budge belief that New Zealand prime time television is not the place for ethnic-centric shows.
One of my favourite mixed-race journalists, Ali Ikram, said it better than I could ever hope to:
“New Zealand mainstream stations often prefer to depict the country as arcadia for both dairy farmers and tourists alike. The archives are groaning with endless hours of programming devoted to a presenter – whether it’s Gary McCormick, Marcus Lush or the Topp Twins – travelling our countryside in search of decent, honest, hard working horny-handed sons and daughters of the soil. Very joyous, life affirming and idyllic, quite sentimental.
While we’ve been watching a steady diet of those shows, the population has become increasingly urbanised and multicultural… Culture isn’t a sitting duck. It moves. The most interesting things are happening on that forward edge. To make a show that would break new ground one would have to convince programmers it could bring in more revenue than home renovation.”
There will always be a place for the “here’s New Zealand again… from a train… on the coast… from the North and from the South” kind of shows. Just as there’s a place for The Block and The Bachelor. But in an ideal world, our TV networks would be bolder in supporting unlikely geniuses, risky concepts and groundbreaking drama – and stories which reflect a non-Pākehā cultural identity.
According to broadcaster Stacey Morrison, finding advertiser backing is one of the big challenges for Māori television shows. “Māori programmes are seen as niche viewing, not commercially viable and off-putting to advertisers.” Morrison says, “It is really hard to gain sponsorship.” But there are green shoots. She points to the upcoming TV1 show, Kasey and Karena’s Diplomatic Kitchen as one. “It’s not solely Māori in focus, more international. But having two Māori presenters who identify as such (a delicate topic – but there is a difference) in a primetime slot is a breakthrough.”
Stacey and husband Scotty Morrison continue to work mostly in mainstream, steadfast in their belief that accurately representing minority groups benefits the country as a whole. TV3 Weather presenter Kanoa Lloyd similarly uses mainstream TV to push the envelope, continuing to write Te Reo seamlessly into her scripts. And Miriama Kamo bravely told her own personal story of racism on Marae, while giving support to inspirational New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd. These individual efforts make a difference in nudging that sticky pendulum ever-closer to the centre.
One of the standout comedies from last year’s line up, Māori Television’s Find Me a Māori Bride is an example of the kind of show which could perform well on a mainstream channel. Producer Kerry Warkia gives credit to Māori Television for believing in the series (which recently wrapped filming its second season) and having the courage to put it up against some ‘Goliaths’.“ I’d like to think – now that it’s been made and embraced by New Zealand – that TVNZ or TV3 would be interested in commissioning similar shows.” Hopefully she’s right.
Warkia was also involved in the acclaimed Flat 3, a web-series which follows the lives of three young NZ Chinese women. It is laugh-out-loud funny and has a huge following, both here and overseas. The show has a big fan in Madeleine Sami, one of the brightest lights in New Zealand televised comedy. “The Flat 3 girls should have their own TV show by now,” she says “It’s crazy… they’re really, really funny, they deserve to be on TV.” Between Super City and her directing the forthcoming second season of Funny Girls, Sami knows funny as well as anyone.
It would be nice to think that one day soon we might see a show on NZ prime time TV that just happens to feature actors of Chinese descent.
One of the stars of Flat 3, JJ Fong, recalls a childhood that was devoid of TV role models. She points to current Newshub presenter Jenny Suo as a great inspiration for young Asian women. “You have to see it to know it’s possible,” she says. Fong has been very fortunate within the industry, but started creating her own work out of frustration at the lack of open casting for roles. She believes that we won’t see real change on screen until there is true diversity behind the scenes. “Having more diverse writers and producers in the mainstream NZ television scene will hopefully change the landscape”.
Unfortunately, the stats behind the scenes are disappointing. NZ On Air’s recent Study of Diversity showed that of their funded TV projects only 1% of producers, 2% of directors and 4% of writers identified as Asian. CEO of NZOA Jane Wrightson sees this imbalance as something the industry needs to address “We will be encouraging the professional guilds to help drive conversations. Creative teams are complicated to pull together and good interpersonal dynamics are crucial. This is why we’d never insist on a particular team make up – putting together a great team is the role of the producer.”
One hopes producers will take up the challenge – showcasing our uniqueness is one of the only ways to continue to forge a mature national identity. I don’t think it’s too outlandish to say that TV3’s Bro’town was a cultural phenomenon. Up until then, Pacific people had been largely TV-invisible, apart from on the rugby field. Had Bro’town been broadcast in an off-peak timeslot, it’s unlikely it would have had the same effect.
But not everyone agrees, including Richard Pamatatau, a Pacific Journalism expert:
“I am not a fan of Bro’town or Sione’s Wedding. I recognise them for what they are – a re-presentation of a slice of a non-white world – but they seem to herd a part of a population and invite the consumer to see all people in that way.”
It’s true that the Samoan experience is not monolithic. Neither is the experience of Asian, or Māori or Pākehā. We can celebrate movies like Sione’s Wedding and shows like Bro’town, but not all Samoans will see themselves represented in those stories, just as not all Pākehā will see themselves represented in Outrageous Fortune. One movie, or TV show does not equal ‘representation’, but it is a starting point. Pamatatau does hold out some hope, “I think as a nation we are finally starting to realise we’re not seeing what we should be seeing.”
While there’s work to do, we are already seeing some good stuff. Shortland Street currently has a Muslim character and supporting storyline, a continuation of it’s commitment to diversity in all forms. By comparison its Australian cousin Neighbours took 29 years to introduce an Aboriginal actor into its core cast. TV2’s drama Filthy Rich had a smart and ambitious female Māori lead (brilliantly played by Miriama Smith), who was not defined by out-dated stereotypes. NZ on Air continues to fund great shows like DNA Detectives, which explores what it means to be a New Zealander at the deepest level. And, of course, we have a dedicated Māori TV channel and funding body.
Now, another space needs to be found on mainstream television for ethnically-driven drama and comedy. The basics of good writing and strong characters will always attract an audience, but there also needs to be a willingness to take some risks. Following the surprise success of Empire, head of Fox TV Gary Newman said “Our strategy going forward is: Don’t be safe, don’t be derivative and swing for the fences.” It’s time we did the same.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.