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The plot to make TVNZ cool again

Eager to outrun the tide of media irrelevance creeping at its doorstep, TVNZ has finally come round to the new world order by going ‘big on local, big on audiences, and bigger OnDemand’. Jihee Junn sits down with some of the company’s biggest execs to hear about their plan for the future.

Ever the quick-witted provocateur, veteran TVNZ executive Andrew Shaw briefly made headlines this year for calling the world’s most popular streaming service nothing more than a fad. “I suspect people treat Netflix like a pet. It’s nice to stroke and everyone feels warm and fuzzy about it, but you know there aren’t that many great shows on it, frankly.”

At this year’s showcase event – full of lights, music, and an overzealous smoke machine – TVNZ seemed to poke fun at its own deputy director of content’s remarks from earlier in the eyar, introducing him to the stage as simply “the guy who knows more about Netflix than anyone at Netflix”.

“If you want to talk to me afterwards, please do,” Shaw added after his intro. “I’ll give you my personal take on Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Sky, Mediaworks, NZME, Fairfax, and some selected individuals. They’re all personal opinions and the last time I checked, you were allowed to have them!”

The popular kids and the gleaming TVNZ building

While Shaw might be a lightning rod for controversy nowadays, it wasn’t that long ago that such brusque dismissals of streaming platforms were common among the TVNZ hierarchy. After all, this is a company that’s long been accused of being slow, backwards, content to seemingly try and ride out the internet wave. Except the internet never really did go away, leaving those who failed to keep up mercilessly behind in the dust.

Eager to outrun the tide of media irrelevance, TVNZ has come round to the new world order in recent years. It’s renovated its CBD headquarters into a glossy, state-of-the-art media hub, consolidated all its online content into a single website, renamed its channels to create a more cohesive brand, and launched experimental initiatives like New Blood and Re: to engage new audiences.

But it’s been far from plain sailing. From its brand and design overhaul last year (“dumbass brand tinkering” as one Twitter commenter put it) to 1 News’ increasing amount of clickbait (“the losers are the New Zealand people”, bemoaned Jack Close), its every move has been scrutinised by a public long-conditioned to be sceptical of the company’s promises. And since the scrapping of the TVNZ charter in 2011, rarely a year goes by without media types of all political persuasions questioning the rationale behind keeping the broadcaster in state hands.

‘Time to sell off TVNZ’, ‘Perhaps now’s a good time to sell off TVNZ’, and ‘Remind us: why do we own TVNZ again?’ have all been real-life headlines that have emerged over the last seven years, a topic that surfaced once again during this years’ election – obliquely with Labour’s announcement it would launch RNZ+, and more explicitly with The Opportunities Party campaigning for its outright sale.

An array of headlines from over the years.

So when it was announced in March that the company would be undertaking one of its most significant company-wide restructures to date, it attracted a wave of fresh criticism from those who saw the move as an excuse to gut newsrooms and cut staff. “You simply cannot do more with less,” commented Paul Brislen at the time. “Instead, to do more, you have to have more. More staff, more cameras, and more resources.”

But TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick begs to differ. Sitting down ahead of this year’s showcase event (a concept which, in itself, strikes as somewhat old-fashioned), he reiterates his stance that TVNZ is “absolutely trying to do more with less,” emphasising that it’s simply the reality of operating in today’s media landscape.

“I think the cost structures of the past aren’t sustainable for the future. So more with less is the starting position for every media organisation,” he says. “You’ve got to choose which things you’re going to stop doing. I don’t think you can just keep on adding more and more. You’ve literally got to pick the stuff that’s most valuable for viewers.”

“What we’ve got now is it really feels like we’ve cleared the decks to enable us to get on with the things that matter the most.”

Online matters

“TV isn’t dying, it’s just having babies,” was advertising guru Bob Hoffmann’s succinct take on television’s predicted demise two years ago. Now, in 2017, the sentiment is proving ever more relevant as television’s various offspring begin to mature. And although it took a while, it seems that TVNZ’s finally gotten the memo. In fact, the days of TVNZ simply approaching things as “linear first with online as a bolt on” seem to have passed, most notably demonstrated by the recent hiring of former Lightbox CEO Kym Niblock.

“Customers just want choice. They want content to be where they want it to be and they want control over how they consume it. It’s [still] about TV, but it’s about TV on different platforms,” says Niblock, who having just joined the company two months ago as chief product and information officer, marks a fresh change from the tone struck by the company’s more long-term veterans.

“If you want to view content on your Apple TV, Roku, or Fire Stick, then we should deliver that. The next level of that is how do you want to view it? Do you want to look at linear streams or do you want to look at video-on-demand? Do you want to watch something as soon as it becomes available or do you want to binge everything at once? Then the next thing to consider is the commercial model. Does it have linear ads in it, is it a pay-on-demand model, or is it a mix between the two?”

Kenrick, who’s now almost six years into the top job, adds that he’s also learned a lot about what TVNZ needs to be doing in the on-demand space thanks to the feedback of its 10,000-strong Green Room panel. “Yes, we need to provide more content and we’re well progressed on that,” he says. “But we also need to improve the user experience with things like content recommendations, autoplay, and enhanced search capability. So it’s a combination of compelling content and really good access and functionality.”

THE TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION CURVE VISUALISED (HUMANIZING TECH/SEAN EVERETT)

When it comes to how viewers behave, Kenrick made the point last year that online preferences were different to on-air preferences. And while Niblock agrees, she says it’s important to view it from the perspective of technology, not demographics. “What we’re seeing with streaming is the whole population moving through this technology adopter curve,” referring to the sociological model describing the adoption of a new product or innovation. “Every piece of technology moves through this curve. With streaming in New Zealand, we’re probably sitting around [the middle] at the moment where there’s a bunch of people that haven’t come to it yet, but there’s a bunch of people who are already there.”

“Clearly, demographics are still very important for ad sales, but for understanding how people behave, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that every 20-year-old does this and every 40-year-old does that. So when Kevin talks about the different behaviours, I think online audiences behave very differently from linear viewers, but it’s not driven by their age.”

Audiences matter

Whether age is truly the factor here or not, the reality is that when it comes to traditional TV viewing, millennial audiences have long been tuning out. Last year, a NZ On Air-funded study found that more 15 to 34-year-olds streamed video online each day than watch linear TV. And while the latter still had the overall edge among all age groups, early adoption and increasing access to technology suggest it’s a lead TV may struggle to hold onto much longer.

This type of disengagement from younger, more tech-savvy segments of the population is what’s fueled the fire behind TVNZ’s New Blood initiative, which features a web series competition (won by Oddly Even this year), a content lab (a repurposed studio where shows like Banter have been filmed), and a talent scheme.

“[The aim] is twofold,” says Cate Slater, TVNZ’s director of content. “One is about connecting with audiences and the other is about developing talent,” although it could be easily argued that there’s another fold in play – access to cheap, accessible, and exclusive ideas for content.

But most impressive among the company’s myriad list of youth-oriented pledges so far is its commitment to Re:, TVNZ’s socially-driven alternate news brand aimed at young New Zealanders. With more than 25,000 followers on Facebook after less than six months in operation, its Mashable-style explainer clips are TVNZ’s best bet at engaging today’s smartphone scrollers – so much so that Kenrick is banking on it with a seven-figure investment.

But while TVNZ busies itself expanding to new audiences, it also begs the question as to whether it’s putting its fingers in a few too many pies, trying to be a little bit of everything for everyone all at once. It’s an approach that differs starkly with Mediaworks who, having also gone through its own tumultuous period of bloodletting, seems to have found its feet with a strong core of entertainment shows targeted at 25-54-year-olds (otherwise touted as TV’s advertising sweet spot). And while figures show TVNZ retaining an overall lead in viewership (5+), Three’s rate of growth over the past few years has regularly rivalled TVNZ. Most recently, it led the quarter among 25-54-year-olds for the first time since 2009, with its most recent watercooler hit, Married at First Sight NZ, winning its timeslot across all four demographics this week.

By concentrating on a more limited but still commercially lucrative segment of viewers, Three has managed to develop a clear sense of identity when it comes to selling itself to viewers and advertisers. And while TVNZ 1’s reputation for factual programming comes through strongly and TVNZ Duke’s renown as a bro channel remains inarguable, TVNZ 2 – which has long relied on shows like Shortland Street as a crutch – seems to have somewhat lost its way (Guy Williams once tweeted with some accuracy that TVNZ 2 should be renamed TVNZ Big Bang Theory).

“I don’t see TVNZ 2 in the same way,” says Slater. “I think TVNZ 2 is the home of big bold shows and that’s quite clear with the shows we’ll be announcing. But it goes beyond that. We’ve got great long-running shows like Police Ten 7 as well…It’s definitely a channel for entertainment [and] big noisy shows.”

“Overall, the way we programme a mainstream channel like TVNZ 1 or TVNZ 2 is to provide a wide variety for a broader audience,” Slater continues. “Where we can play with targeted content is online. We can actually get a lot more targeted towards a particular style of content that might be suited to a particular audience. That’s a really good place to have that targeted content.”

TVNZ CEO Kevin Kenrick (supplied)

From a business perspective, Kenrick says the approach makes sense in the context of the size of New Zealand, explaining that “if you’re in a market the size of New Zealand, then you have to reach a critical mass of New Zealanders to have a viable business, and the risk is if you’re too specialised in quite a narrow niche, it just isn’t commercially viable.”

“What we’ve focused on is, in aggregate, aiming to reach two million New Zealanders every day and over time, we expect that the makeup of that will change quite significantly. So on a really big day we’ll get over two million on TV. But we think we’ll be less reliant on [audiences] coming from TV and more reliant on them coming from online streaming. More of them will also be on platforms that we distribute via rather than ones we necessarily have to own and control.”

Local matters

While TVNZ 2 managed to dominate last year’s ratings in the 25-54 category (with Gloriavale‘s solitary episode taking the top spot), it’s notable that the vast majority of them were either Australian or American, with just three out of its 14 shows on the list being locally produced (one being a repeat of Sensing Murder).

In fact, the lack of quality local content on channels like TVNZ 2 is a large part of why it struggles to formulate a clear sense of identity among viewers. Instead, shows like Toddlers Make You Laugh Out Loud and Dogs That Make You Laugh Out Loud 2 are left to shape the channel’s stature as a hodgepodge mix of lowbrow entertainment. And with platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Vine (RIP) doing it so much better, it’s no wonder why the channel is faltering.

Which might be why shows like Heartbreak Island, The Legend of Monkey, Project Runway New Zealand, and Paranormal Unit are among the new local shows spearheading TVNZ’s line-up this year. And while the company’s been criticised for its increasingly overt skew towards the reality genre (not to mention its dearth of originality), at least it’s an improvement on a schedule once limited to endless reruns of Sensing Murder and garish soaps like Filthy Rich – the latter being a conspicuous absence from the new season line-up after chucking $7 million of NZ On Air funding down the drain.

TVNZ’S LOCAL FARE INCLUDES THE CURIOUS MIND WITH NIGEL LATTA, MY KITCHEN RULES NZ, BANTER, AND ODDLY EVEN.

 

But good local content doesn’t just have the benefit of being a ratings hit: it’s also a business asset to future-proof against the Googles, YouTubes, and Facebooks of the world. Because while no media company operating in a country the size of New Zealand can come close to challenging these platforms (which operate on a much lower cost base being based overseas), when it comes to local content, it’s the best piece of leverage broadcasters like TVNZ have on its cards.

“We know that viewers want the best of global and the best of local, and we’re committed to continuing to bring those two together,” says Kenrick. “But what you will see is a stronger skew towards local, and the rationale for that is it’s a point of difference for us against global scale competitors. We know that when we do it well, local shows really resonate with viewers.”

“We’ve [also] put a number of things in place that we think future-proofs news. We’ve got more reporters in more locations than we’ve ever had before, and that will enable us to get more stories that are reflective of New Zealand.”

New government, new TVNZ?

As TVNZ marches forward in reinventing itself, it would be amiss not to ponder whether the election of a new government could throw a spanner in works, especially when it’s one that has plans to expand RNZ into free-to-air, noncommercial, multimedia broadcaster. “What’s the point in the government owning a purely commercial broadcaster?” asked one Spinoff writer last year, a question that will no doubt be raised again if RNZ+ really does go ahead.

“Sure, it might be a great way to make money – but so are many other New Zealand industries,” he writes. “New Zealand should look to the BBC, which reaches 96 percent of UK adults each week, and which operates under a charter very similar to the TVNZ one scrapped in 2011. The BBC doesn’t seek profit and doesn’t run any adverts. Its sole purpose is to inform, entertain and educate.”

Kenrick, however, remains unfazed, pointing out that he’s already got enough on his plate without indulging in the political conjecture that surrounds him. “We’re very clear internally about what we need to do,” he says. “I think there’s a range of different perspectives externally about what we should be doing, but when you look at the TVNZ Act, it doesn’t use the word ‘public service’ or ‘public broadcasting’, so there’s no defined or specific public mandate for TVNZ. Yet at the same time, we need to deliver something that is valued by our viewers and provides value to our advertisers. If we do that, then we’ve got a sustainable business. If we don’t, then we’ve got a problem.”

TVNZ’S REBRAND LAST YEAR FEATURING A NUMBER OF LARGE MENACING BALLS STALKING INNOCENT CITIZENS.

“TVNZ’s a business. Profit is not a dirty word. I’d far rather be profitable rather than unprofitable,” he continues. “The government requires TVNZ to operate as a sustainable business. If we became a drain on the government, I don’t think that’s what they expect from us as a business. We’re doing our job if we play those rules.”

“I think the whole thing around public service… is an outdated concept. At the same time, I think there should be an ongoing focus on the sustainability of local content that matters to New Zealand, and first and foremost, I think that’s news. What I think is important is that there are steps taken to ensure that local news is sustainable and that the model for journalism is viable. I think we’d be a weaker society if that wasn’t the case. So if that fits under a remit called public service, then I’m all for that. But public service for the sake of it based on historic constructs, I think is far less relevant.”

So as TVNZ builds its new media kingdom – not as a public broadcaster, but as a commercially sustainable provider of content – it will no doubt continue to weather an onslaught of critique. But to once more quote the observations of Bob Hoffmann, TV’s new babies will continue to mature. Some will survive, some will die. TVNZ is making plans to make it through the storm.


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