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.