John Drinnan: Gods back to ring out era

So-called golden age of drama tipped to end - TV3 expected to opt for reality shows now owner's in receivership

Some would argue that The Almighty Johnsons demonstrates all that is wrong with Kiwi TV
Some would argue that The Almighty Johnsons demonstrates all that is wrong with Kiwi TV

The Almighty Johnsons returned to TV3 last night for its third series.

Some believe it might be an almighty finale for what NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson says has been a golden era in New Zealand television drama.

But calling it a part of a golden era could count as myth-making for some.

The show - about some Kiwi jack-the-lads who are also Norse gods - is quite juvenile and some would argue it is a sign of what is wrong with Kiwi TV.

But it has rated reasonably well and has a loyal following.

Producers at South Pacific Pictures recently sold the show to the British SyFy channel.

But this third series of Almighty Johnsons - which was revived at late notice - will be launching during a pivotal time for TV3 owner MediaWorks.

The company is in receivership and is expected to be handed to new owners - the bankers who have wiped out huge amounts of debt.

It is expected that reality TV producer Julie Christie will take a hands-on role and that the company will pull back from MediaWorks' commitment to drama, opting instead for reality shows like X-Factor.

Some in the TV industry believe that if that happens Television New Zealand will pick up the slack and take New Zealand On Air money to increase its drama output.

But others, such as former NZ On Air chairman David Beatson, say it's time for the funding agency to revise an unhealthy focus on drama to which it has given huge swathes of funding over the past 20 years.

There had been a lot of attention on maintaining the golden era but other genres have suffered, he says.

Wrightson acknowledges that drama has had a good run.

"We may be coming out of a golden period when we have had three dramas on three networks with a sprinkling of one-off dramas and comedies," she says.

"Whether that is sustainable with [our] diminishing spending power, I don't know."


Wrightson says the quantity of drama has created an infrastructure and continued work meant drama production was more efficient.

There had been no "duds" for a long time.

She rejected a suggestion NZ On Air was building that infrastructure at the expense of other genres.

But in NZ On Air's view dramas were "the most powerful way of telling stories - there is no question", she says.

Certainly it is the most expensive genre - and an hour of drama will easily cost more than three hours of documentaries.

But it is important to keep the momentum going, she says.

"The dark days of drama were when the networks lurched about and shows never lasted past series one," Wrightson says.

"People forget that Outrageous Fortune did not work commercially until series three and you need patience in this game," she says.

"If TV3 went out of drama we'd look [to] TVNZ because it [is] still very interested in drama and it commands good audiences.

"Tier 2 [smaller] channels are interested in drama so we could look there.

"The third option? We could commit the drama funding somewhere else - do some more digital work or doco work."


Beatson, a public broadcasting advocate, says 2013 marks an NZ On Air turning point where it has to re-examine its total mission because of fragmentation of audiences during the digital switchover.

"This is the last year things can be maintained with the drama focus we have had for 20 years."

The public was likely to be offered more reality or "virtual reality" shows like The GC.

Beatson says NZ On Air is right to say it should not punish its successes with drama.

But by doing that you are punishing your potential successes in other genres, he says.


TV2 still has the biggest drama success on TV with Shortland Street, which is in its 21st year and dominating the 7pm timeslot.

But TV2 ratings for the fifth series of the female-oriented drama Go Girls are down.

Ten episodes in to the 2013 series the average audience is 214,200, compared to the average for 13 episodes last year of 321,700.

Its audience share has gone from 18 per cent to 15 per cent. In its target audience aged 18-49 the audience share has gone from 27 per cent to 22 per cent. TVNZ says it is still happy with the show.


Change is under way at TV3.

MediaWorks has been negotiating with Fox TV to reduce its commitments to its output deal.

Both Sky TV and Television New Zealand are said to be interested in more content, although Sky TV chief executive John Fellet yesterday rejected a rumour that Sky had been in talks with Fox recently.

TV3 network programming manager Ged Mahony resigned this week to be broadcast manager with the New Zealand Rugby Union, negotiating sports rights with broadcasters. Production boss Rachel Jean leaves MediaWorks in September and there is no sign of her being replaced.


Viewers who love TV drama and shell out for Sky TV and the premium SoHo channel can be relieved that some of the best shows turn up there, where once they disappeared into the ether.

Innovative series such as Black Mirror - that once would have turned up on TV One - are on the pay channel. But as it nears its first birthday next month, television's premium drama channel is starting to look tatty around the edges.

The broadcaster is on a cut-price promotion for the premium drama channel finally breaking even after 18 months on air.

The "$1 for a month" promo (before reverting to a $10 subscription) will boost subscribers, currently believed to be headed for 100,000.

It will boost subscriber revenue but the increased audience will also make it more attractive for advertisers.

Advertising appears to be taking a higher profile, although Fellet says they may be replacing promotions for upcoming programmes.

Sky was committed to there being no advertising inside programmes and ads would not be run to the point that subscriptions were lost.

Ads currently made up only 10 per cent of the revenue for SoHo and there had never been any complaints.

Television programming analyst Philip Wakefield, who runs the Screenscribe website, says that the level of repeat screenings appears to have increased and that Sky had been slow to pick up fresh content.


Considering all the kerfuffle around the GCSB legislation and the select committee hearing, the parliamentary Press Gallery has seemed remarkably relaxed about the state surveillance of Dominion Post reporter Andrea Vance.

It was revealed last week that Parliamentary Service, the organisation that runs Parliament, had used swipe cards to track the movements of Vance who had the scoop on the outcome of the investigation into the GCSB.

A parliamentary source says that the Speaker David Carter - who oversees Parliamentary Service - has taken a dim view of the surveillance, which was completed without his signing-off.

Government tracking of journalists is symbolically loaded at a time when the media are trying to cover the Government's provisions for changes to spy laws, where the biggest issue is the lack of scrutiny of the snoopers.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

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