Television in New Zealand, Pt II

Ok, so I gave a brief primer on NZ Television history here – it felt a little like the basics of an undergrad essay, but it’s kind of important to understand in order to understand the next points I want to make. I would hasten to add that others have described NZ TV history better and much more eloquently. I’d point towards Nick Perry, Roger Horrocks, Trisha Dunleavy, Geoff Lealand and Peter Thompson as just some of the people writing about it.

I’ve also skated over one key aspect, which I will probably continue to skate over, as it needs a book-length to go into it, and that is how local television production  is funded. I may be drawn into writing about it at some time in the future, but I thought I should at least acknowledge that it is an important, albeit convoluted area.

Ok, so the discussion which brought this whole topic into my mind revolved around US television programming on New Zealand screens. To provide a little more background, the major free-to-air stations, both state-owned and private, feature mainly imported programming, from the US, the UK, and from Australia. Locally produced content does also feature, but mainly in the form of current affairs, sport and reality TV. There is a single NZ nightly soap, a couple of short-run dramas per year, and as of recently, a couple of comedies, including a comedy panel show. So what we see is a fairly diverse range of programming.

Each channel has its own, relatively distinct demographic that it aims for, which is best described by the programming they choose. TV One tends to feature more British and Australian programming, aiming at a slightly older audience, as well as the rural audience. TV2 is it’s “youth” counterpart, featuring more US programming. TV3 tends to compete with TV2, aiming at a slightly broader market, mixing mainstream US content with some local current affairs programming, and consumer watchdog reality programming.

(Please note: I’ve had to draw most of the following details from memory, so I may have slipped up on a couple of details)

So where am I going with this? What I find most interesting is how particular US programmes are positioned outside of their original broadcast network. The Sopranos, which within the US was important in developing the HBO brand, screened in NZ on TV One, positioning it automatically as a programme of “quality”. Big Love, on the other hand, screened on TV2, a more “populist” positioning; The Wire never had a prime time scheduling, usually screening late at night, again on TV2. Rome was another that was considered “quality” enough to feature on TV One. Several other HBO shows have also featured on Prime TV, the free-to-air arm of the Sky TV pay service, including Deadwood.

The reason for these details is to highlight the fact that unless one is interested enough in the media industries to be following them online, an average viewer would have no idea that these programmes all shared a similar point of origin. The difference between cable and network shows in the US is blurred within New Zealand, to the level that a series from the CSI franchise might be paired with a series from the Law and Order franchise, and followed by a cable series from HBO or Showtime, such as United States of Tara.

Does his change how we perceive these shows? I’m hard-pressed to say, not having experienced the US model first-hand, but from online discussions, I would have to assume that it does. However, in some ways I wonder whether it might not be more freeing for certain programmes. I get the impression that there are expectations within the US of what one might expect from individual networks, the style of programming that might be expected. Comments are sometimes made that where a particular programming might be failing, or being cancelled on one network, it might have found more of an audience on another. This must surely be different in a locale where the original network brands are lost.

There is one other point that I want to make about New Zealand television, stimulated by a recent In Media Res week – as opposed to the US, there is no readily definable TV season. Thus, we don’t have the standard September-May season, there is no concept such as a Summer season. The national soap, Shortland Street, does run on a roughly calendar year, taking a month-long break from mid-December to mid-January, but other programming starts and stops on a patchwork basis. This can be quite noticeable when looking at a franchise such as the CSIs, where TV3, the local carrier, manages to screen new episodes year-round, by staggering the start of each so that they constantly have one of the high-rating series bringing in viewers.

I don’t have any well-formed ideas surrounding how these differences might change the television viewing experience, but I would love some feedback, some thoughts, as it may well stimulate further ideas. I’m still hoping to make it to the Flow TV conference, where some of the roundtables may well touch on some of these concepts as well.

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10 thoughts on “Television in New Zealand, Pt II

  1. Jessie Edwards

    Hi Mark, I followed Christine Becker’s link over here. Thanks for your thoughts!

    I’m in Australia and that In Media Res theme week prompted the exact same reaction in me, the difficulty of coming to that conversation and responding to those shows with a completely different relationship to what summer (winter, hello!) TV and network identity is.

    Are networks starting to “FastTrack” US content in NZ? Here there is increasing demand for episodes as soon as they air (for instance Supernatural fans have been kicking up an almighty fuss because they are all online and they know what they’re missing, but Ten pulled it almost immediately because the ratings were abysmal). I wonder if we will start to see more defined seasons that align with the US broadcast structures, with the same (endless) hiatuses that correspond with sporting events and elections etc.

    Nevertheless with the rise of cable programming and six/twelve-season programming in the US — I mean, Mad Men’s only now just about to start, and does that count as summer TV? — I wonder how long it will be useful to talk about seasons in the September-May sense.

  2. Mark S

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jessie – I can imagine that Australia would have quite a similar experience, to an extent.

    Absolutely I feel that the “fasttracking” of some content has become more noticeable – Lost, for instance, in it’s 6th season, screened at roughly an 8 day delay from the US, as did the most recent season of American Idol. Having said that, we are yet to officially see Dollhouse at all, and I think Supernatural is somewhere around mid-Season 4. The majority of major programming, we end up at least half a season behind, if not more.

    Having said that there wasn’t a season, and I do stand by that, there is a slight trend to start pushing new programming in the New Year, and although that doesn’t stop networks continuously introducing new programming throughout the year, it probably means that anything starting here in Feb, started in the US in Sept, giving us roughly a 10-12 ep delay.

    What I have noticed, and this is purely observational rather than from any research, is that NZ is particularly slow to screen new programming from the US, inevitably putting us at least half a season behind, if not more. I would have to put this down to the vagaries of cancellation/renewal – the last thing a network wants is to plan in a 22-week block of programming, only to find they’re left with 8 weeks to fill, because CBS wasn’t happy with the demos the show was pulling in the US…

    This has almost become a new post by itself, but thanks to your thoughts, it stimulated some more ideas of my own!

    • Jessie Edwards

      It’s an interesting conversation, Mark!

      A half season behind wouldn’t have felt so egregiously slow only a few years ago, but these days we treat it as insupportable. Sure, people have been grumbling in the local TV mag for years upon years, but now that the delivery technology allows it and viewers know what they’re missing it is by far the most complained about issue. Unfortunately we have such little access to the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that “why not fasttrack?” seems a difficult question to answer.

      I think you make a good point that there is a lot of trust placed on overseas networks to keep episodes coming. Shows like Ellen, Letterman and the Daily Show will turn around within 24 hrs because the genre is topical and the episodes dependable. 9 can fasttrack Hot In Cleveland to cash in on Betty White (can they really cash in on her without her SNL hype to boost her persona?) knowing that TVLand isn’t going to cancel their highest-rating show anytime soon. I was shocked to see the promo for HIC last night because it’s so new and it’s rare that we’re so on the ball.

      • Mark S

        I think the “fasttrack” argument also comes back to the rise of social networks. One of my earlier posts about Tvittering also starts to apply – I was reminded of this this morning, as I sat down to watch the first ep of the second season of Masterchef Australia, having seen Facebook updates and tweets from my Australian friends for the last several weeks, if not months. I already know which names I will be expecting to see down the track. I think that this is just one of the reasons that our expectations have increased for a fast turnaround.

        And I get the impression Australia might be a little bit better at that – we certainly don’t seem to have any indication HiC will be here any time soon…

      • Jessie Edwards

        Social networks definitely play a big role. When everyone you know is having a ball watching the latest Doctor Who and discussing it amongst themselves it can get rather lonely and frustrating to not be able to join in.

        we certainly don’t seem to have any indication HiC will be here any time soon…
        Possibly a good thing!

        Should I be surprised you’re getting Masterchef Australia? Is there no local version? Does the Australian version feel more local than the UK version?

      • Mark S

        We do have a local version – they’re casting up for the second season now – but we get a lot of Aussie-based reality tv here – probably a low cost to purchase, given that most of it wouldn’t be planning on overseas sales?

      • Jessie Edwards

        no idea about international sales of MCAus; I know our drama programmes sell. But the reality format is so easily and cheaply malleable to local audiences that it surprises me that Australia would export a local reality show; we tend to be much better at importing them!

        But this speaks to the competitive reality genre as a whole; My Kitchen Rules was a show that I would think would be almost impossible to sell oversesas seeing as so much of it relied on locals cheering on their own; but the format of course is endlessly repeatable in any location.

        Certainly we don’t receive Masterchef NZ here on the regular free-to-air channels. But the antipodean cringe factor is at play here too: UK and US versions have infinitely more cultural cachet.

        Nevertheless with the seemingly exponential proliferation of channels we may be seeing more foreign versions of stuff we get locally. Gotta fill up those hours somehow!

  3. citizen_parable

    Hi Mark.

    In terms of fast-tracking vs delayed programming, is there a cost factor? In buying from the US, does the price curve perhaps dip away relatively swiftly meaning the financial risk lessens for local networks the more they delay? Some knowledge of the content purchasing system would be useful.

    And, while I know it’s not the focus of your post, there’s one major area you left out when talking about locally produced content: children’s television. We make a lot of it here. Off the top of my head – What Now, Sticky TV, The WotWots, The Giggles, Small Blacks TV, The Go Show, The Adventures of Massey Ferguson, Bumble, Tamatoa, Pukana, etc etc

    (I have a child!)

    Also, while it comes under, I suppose, reality tv, but there are quite a few local ‘magazine-style’ shows with different niche markets – Asia Downunder, Attitude (Disabilites) and…is there still a gay-oriented show on TV, I’m not sure…

    • Mark S

      The simple answer regarding cost factor is that I don’t know. My instinct is that the cost premium would be around “first run” in a given region, without too much attention paid to how late that might be, but that is instinctual only. I would have said the cost factor might almost cancel itself out, even if that were the case, with engaged viewers possibly locating the programme themselves online, or even legally through international DVD distribution, should there be enough delay.

      Your comment on children’s television is very accurate, and you’re absolutely right, I had completely forgotten to acknowledge it. I have also noticed a number of programmes being produced for the primary school/tween market, frequently for export as well – whilst not necessarily being highly ‘kiwi’, there is certainly an interesting model there.

      I guess I actually see locally-produced children’s television as being vitally important – seeing one’s own culture reflected on screen is hugely important, and I feel even more so at an early age (forgoing any “media effects” discussion regarding how much television is healthy for children).

      I’m trying to remember the name of the gay magazine show – it was some play on the word ‘Out’ I’m sure… I would position them somewhere in between current affairs & reality tv, I guess.

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