New Zealand isn’t the most prolific TV drama-producing nation in the world. But it does have a good skills base and some fantastic locations (Jane Campion’s exquisite Top of the Lake miniseries was shot on the island, as were high-profile movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
The country also has a decent level of funding support from the government. Media funding agency NZ On Air invests around NZ$80m (US$56m) a year in local TV shows, of which NZ$36m is allocated to drama and comedy. This money is accessed by applications from broadcasters.
Under the Broadcasting Act that guides NZ On Air’s investment decisions, priority is given to drama as a way to reflect and develop New Zealand culture and identity. The goal is to produce “high-quality local drama that competes with the best international programmes” says NZ On Air, with “most funds invested in programmes to be broadcast during prime time on the mainstream channels that reach the largest audiences.”
Recent high-profile examples of shows to have secured investment are outlined below. Some have already aired, some are coming soon:
Filthy Rich, which aired earlier this year on TVNZ’s TV2, follows three illegitimate children who each discover they have a claim to the fortune of one of New Zealand’s wealthiest men, John Truebridge. It received more than NZ$8m of funding from NZ On Air, making it one of the most expensive dramas to come out of NZ. But it didn’t get a good response from critics and saw its ratings decline steadily from a 400,000 debut to around half that total. Nevertheless, the show has just been granted a second season, with NZ On Air stumping up another NZ$6.9m. TVNZ says it is not uncommon for domestically-produced shows to take time to build and is keen to give Filthy Rich another chance. To give a flavour of the opposing viewpoints over the show, NZ Herald critic Duncan Grieve called it “a caricature of New Zealand, with heartless wealth and plucky poverty and a cynical pimp and a conniving businesswoman,” while NZ On Air said: “The brilliantly made first series had an average five-plus audience of 250,000 and a total of more than 700,000 on-demand streams across the series, meeting NZ On Air’s objective of a bold local drama engaging its audience.”
Outrageous Fortune is a comedy drama that ran on TV3 from 2005 to 2010. The popular show followed the fortunes of a criminal family that decides to go straight. In 2014, TV3 greenlit a prequel called Westside, which also proved popular. Last year NZ On Air contributed NZ$7.5m towards a second season of the show. Both series are from South Pacific Pictures, which is one of the key players in the New Zealand business. It is owned by All3Media and also makes NZ’s iconic soap Shortland Street.
The Brokenwood Mysteries is now into its third season on Prime. Comprised of two-hour murder mysteries set in small town New Zealand, the latest batch of four films received NZ$4m from NZ On Air. The franchise, produced by South Pacific Pictures, debuted in 2014 on Sunday nights and attracted 200,000 viewers, a strong performance for Prime. Dubbed as New Zealand’s answer to Midsomer Murders, it continues to do good business for Prime. Brokenwood has also been sold extensively on the international market by All3Media, rating well for public broadcaster France 3.
Dirty Laundry secured NZ$6.8m in July 2015. The 13-hour drama for TVNZ’s TV1 is produced by Filthy Productions, the same company that made Filthy Rich. The show centres on a middle-class family whose mother is jailed for money laundering. It is written and produced by Rachel Lang, Gavin Strawhan and Steven Zanoski. A trailer was released in April 2016, but Dirty Laundry is not due to launch until later this year. The show is sure to receive the same close scrutiny as Filthy Rich.
Hillary is the story of famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, based on the biography by Tom Scott. Produced by Great South Television for TV1, the six-part series received NZ$6.4m in 2014. Given the subject matter, it stands a good chance of being picked up by broadcasters around the world. The show has already been acquired by Network Ten in Australia.
Dear Murderer was given the go-ahead by NZ On Air in May 2016, when it handed a NZ$4m award to TV1. The show is a five-part series based on the life and career of the late criminal lawyer Mike Bungay. Bungay died in 1993 and his wife wrote a book about him in 1997, from which the series takes its name. The show will be produced by Screentime NZ. NZOA boss Jane Wrightson said: “Audiences will delight in the Dear Murderer story about one of the most flamboyant and outrageous men in New Zealand legal history.”
Bombshell – The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior is a two-hour TV movie about the infamous sinking of a Greenpeace boat. It is from Screentime for TV1 and received NZ$2.8m in July 2015. TV movies based on true stories are an important part of the funding programme, with NZ On Air also backing Jean, about the NZ aviatrix Jean Batten. “Each of these is unique to New Zealand. Seeing our own stories on screen, whether they are fictional or bring our history to life, is crucial to our culture. Amid a sea of foreign content, this is New Zealand on air,” said Wrightson. Produced by Lippy Pictures, Jean secured NZ$3.2m.
The Cul De Sac is a dystopian teen drama about a world in which adults disappear. Produced by Greenstone TV for TV2, season one secured just over NZ$1m and season two was granted a further NZ$1.4m in May this year. The sci-fi themed show is a relatively new genre for NZ. Aired on Sunday nights at 18.00 from April 2016, it seems to have had a good first outing.
Step Dave is another South Pacific show. Season one received NZ$6.6m and season two got a further NZ$6.8m in 2015. It sees central character Dave, a 24-year-old Kiwi slacker, face major life changes when he falls in love with Cara, an older woman with three kids and “baggage.” In an interview with NZ On Air, series creator Kate McDermott said this about writing for Kiwis: “NZ audiences are made up of a lot of different types of people, all with diverse preferences and likes. (But) what I’ve noticed is that viewers seem to quite like spending time with down-to-earth Kiwi characters they can recognise or identify with. Humour also seems to be important. I don’t think we like to take ourselves too seriously, so even in moments of high drama, suspense, romance, danger, we always try to find room for a saccharine-cutter.” The TV2 show attracted 189,000 viewers to its finale in November and there is no decision yet on whether it will return.
Step Dave’s Kate McDermott also had this to say about the importance of local drama: “When I was little we all used to play make-believe using American accents, because that was what we heard on television. My daughters have grown up with their own accents on television five nights a week, on Shortland Street. They’ve watched Being Eve, graduated to Go Girls and are now quickly making their way through the box set of Outrageous Fortune. For this generation of young Kiwis, it is a given that they can turn on the television and hear their own voices, see their own cities and scenery and get to know characters that they can identify with. Pride in our own stories, characters, our talent, our music – that matters. And we should be proud because we are not the only ones watching – we get a lot of feedback from other countries where audiences are discovering New Zealand drama.”
tagged in: Bombshell – The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, Dear Murderer, Dirty Laundry, Filthy Rich, Kate McDermott, NZ On Air, Outrageous Fortune, Prime, Step Dave, The Brokenwood Mysteries, The Cul De Sac, TV1, TV2, TV3