The demise of quality TV drama in our primetime

By Veronica Schmidt

Pay TV scoops the best shows so most viewers miss out, a reader survey reveals. But tech-savvy youngsters know better.

Ezra Whittaker-Powley and Eden in their flat have found a way around pay-TV by downloading shows illegally. Photo / Doug Sherring
Ezra Whittaker-Powley and Eden in their flat have found a way around pay-TV by downloading shows illegally. Photo / Doug Sherring

This is the golden age of entertainment television. Never has Hollywood spent so much on the small screen. Never have so many talented film stars been lured to star in TV series. Never have we seen a series as slick as Mad Men, a comedy as revealing as Girls or battle scenes as epic as those that rumble through Game of Thrones.

If only we could simply switch on the TV and enjoy. Instead, we complain endlessly and angrily that there is nothing worth watching on the box.

Today's Nielsen survey of 895 Herald on Sunday readers reveals most viewers still watch the big three free-to-air channels - One, TV2 and TV3 - and 73 per cent would prefer to watch TV the old-fashioned way, rather than buying a premium SoHo subscription or going to the internet.

But they're divided about the quality. One-third believe free-to-air TV has improved in recent years, almost as many believe it's got worse and 45 per cent believe the best shows are now on pay TV.

The problem is that while America is pumping out ground-breaking shows, it is impossible to view many of them in New Zealand without opening your wallet.

Premium Sky channel SoHo has locked up a feast of award-winning programmes - many of which were once available on free-to-air - through deals with the American cable network HBO and international production giant Sony Pictures Television.

To get to the modern-day western Justified, the confronting psychotherapy series In Treatment and the unrivalled morality minefield that is Breaking Bad, as well as a string of other critically feted shows, viewers must pay a monthly $46.92 for a basic Sky subscription and another $9.99 for SoHo.

SoHo's beguiling line-up lured nearly 70,000 subscribers within seven months of its 2011 launch (Sky has nearly 847,000 subscribers in total).

Sky's director of entertainment, Travis Dunbar, says: "SoHo is Sky's fastest growing subscription channel".

But much of New Zealand - and there are almost 1.66 million households in the country - is unable or unwilling to pay. Occasionally, Sky will eventually repeat a significant series on its one unlocked channel, Prime (Game of Thrones and Mad Men, briefly). Otherwise, we are left to the entertainment available on free-to-air TV - and that, says NZ Broadcasting School head Paul Norris is (apart from Maori Television) largely "a collection of motley, cheap reality programmes and lots of crime".

"They are entirely driven by ratings and there's a perception by the programmers that those [more high-brow] shows aren't going to rate," says the BBC and TVNZ veteran turned academic.

"I think there's a tendency to underestimate the intelligence of the audience.

"I am old," he says. "It's not cheap reality shows that I want to watch."

Danuta Szymanik, 77, sympathises. The Auckland pensioner wonders why reality formats proliferate and who would watch them.

"It's the most worthless thing that you could show to people," she says. "I want intelligent TV that stimulates my senses."

Szymanik's budget is tight and she relies on free-to-air TV for entertainment. The one-time thespian sifts through the schedules and manages to find some good shows, but she wishes that reality TV would recede and leave more room for thrillers, westerns, comedies and shows "that say something".

Overseas, viewers' options are opening up. internet-based subscription and pay-per-view services such as iTunes and Netflix let viewers stream series from free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters. Netflix, which charges US$7.99 ($10) for unlimited streaming, has begun offering original content. The company has an exclusive on the fourth series of Arrested Development, and recently produced House of Cards for its websites.

In New Zealand, iTunes doesn't offer any TV shows. Quickflix has a small selection of BBC programmes but can't provide HBO series in New Zealand as it does in other countries because SoHo has a watertight exclusive.

The young and tech-savvy are not defeated. They are breaking the law to watch the shows they say are missing from free-to-air TV and can't be seen online without a Sky subscription.

Auckland design student Ezra Whittaker-Powley, 20, is relaxed about discussing his illegal downloading habit, explaining that all his peers do it. They visit file-sharing website Pirate Bay and take illegal copies of big American dramas and comedies. "There's not a great selection on free-to-air TV and it takes a long time for the shows to get to New Zealand," he says.

"Our generation is very impatient like that. There are shows that come out once a week [in the US] and we don't like having to wait even a week to download them."

During the last season of Game of Thrones, Whittaker-Powley and his six flatmates watched the latest episode shortly after it screened in the US each week.

Not all of his flatmates feel good about their collective piracy habit.

Eden, who asked that the Herald on Sunday use only her first name, says: "I feel bad about the fact that I am not supporting what these people are putting work into, but I'm not in a financial position to have Sky."

Kiwis illegally download about 10,000 songs, movies and TV shows every day and the chance of being caught is slim to nothing.

Although the music industry pursues downloaders, the New Zealand Federation Against Copyright Theft, which represents the film and TV industry, has yet to send a single infringement notice as it disagrees with the fee structure established by the "three strikes" copyright law.

The only true piracy deterrent is one's conscience. This leads some viewers to opt for dubious rather than downright illegal practices to watch TV shows.

Most involve tricking the geo-blocking software that US streaming websites, such as Netflix, use to deny foreign viewers access.

New Zealand internet service provider Slingshot recently introduced a "global mode" that allows its customers to disguise their location. The company says it is intended for foreigners travelling in New Zealand but it does not police who uses it.

Easily obtainable virtual private network (VPN) programmes are another way to circumnavigate geo-blocking.

Geoff, a 37-year-old Auckland professional who also asked that we use only his first name, doesn't have Slingshot and doesn't bother with VPNs. He signed up for a US iTunes account instead.

"You need an American address so I just used a hotel one," he says. "They only take American credit cards, but you can buy iTunes vouchers in lots of places so I buy them and credit my account. Then I pay to watch programmes."

Wouldn't it be easier if free-to-air TV just upped its game? The head of TV One and TV2, Jeff Latch, bristles at the suggestion that TVNZ has been pushed out of the quality entertainment market.

He reels off a list of the network's great British shows - Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge among them - and New Zealand dramas, which Sky lacks. "Go Girls," he challenges. "Billy. Tangiwai."

Latch will concede that competition from the spiralling growth of New Zealand TV channels - from two to more than 100 in the past 25 years - has had an effect on TVNZ. "If you look at TV over the past 20 years, there's been increasing fragmentation with the introduction of more channels and each of them takes a little bit away from free-to-air," he says.

But TVNZ is making up for the loss of overseas drama, replacing it with shows like New Zealand's Got Talent, MasterChef, and this month's high-rating Mitre 10 Dream Home in which two couples compete to build themselves a home in quake-torn Canterbury under the supervision of horn-wielding host Simon Barnett.

"The audience for those, once they get hooked in, watch a lot more of a series than they would a drama," Latch says.

And the main point is, they rate. Despite more than 60 per cent of viewers proclaiming in today's Nielsen survey that they like to watch documentaries and drama, the ratings reveal that after a hard day, they are more likely to flick the remote in the direction of New Zealand's Got Talent, Dynamo Magician Impossible, Border Patrol or Dog Squad.

Local reality shows are expensive to make, but they are often subsidised by NZ on Air and extensive product placement.

TVNZ and TV3 can't get that kind of funding to help them buy top overseas drama. More channels means fiercer competition for the best foreign content, and in the battle of the budgets, Sky wins.

Last year, the company reported a profit of $123 million. TVNZ's profit was $14.2 million, and GR Media Holdings - the former holding company of Mediaworks, owner of TV3, Four and a string of radio stations - had a $90 million loss.

Now in receivership, Mediaworks' ability (and willingness) to vie for expensive foreign shows could plummet. The new guard is reportedly renegotiating deals with US studios Fox TV and NBC to reduce Mediaworks' buying commitments.

It doesn't help that an unprecedented amount of cash is being spent on big American TV productions - the first series of Game of Thrones cost about US$60 million - and the increased costs trickle down.

Nick Grant, the Herald on Sunday's TV critic and former editor of Onfilm, says paying to secure such expensive series makes commercial sense for a pay TV company like Sky, as the price tags will be off-set by the new subscribers the shows attract.

"Those shows are often loss-leaders for pay TV," he says. "It's like the way supermarkets entice people in with specials. They might be making a loss on them but they do it to get people in the door."

Free-to-air TV, on the other hand, relies on advertising to survive. The channels need large audiences to secure advertisers, and high-end dramas can leave big bills without delivering the ratings of a cheaper, reality-based show.

"Those dramas require a great deal of attention and concentration," explains Grant. "For a lot of people, TV is moving wallpaper.

"Some people love something that challenges and others just want something that gives them a break from the realities of life."

Indeed, the highest-rating entertainment shows on TV last year were the unchallenging Naughty Shorty: 20 Years of Bloopers, Border Security and Dog Squad.

What of our other common gripe about free-to-air? Why do foreign series take so long to reach us?

Latch says US broadcasters rarely screen series in a continuous run, frequently dropping episodes from the schedules to show big events. Their 22-episode season can take as long as 32 weeks.

"If we follow right behind them and there's a presidential broadcast or a public holiday, we're left with no show," he says.

Our seasons also clash with the US and Britain. Series start in autumn and continue through winter to attract viewers hibernating at home.

The Northern Hemisphere's cooler months coincide with the New Zealand spring and summer. "It's Christmas and the summer holidays when there is the least viewership," says Latch. "So a lot of people aren't there. That means we have to break the show and try to re-launch it."

All of this has ceased to be a problem for the Grey Lynn flatters with their illegal downloads, and the urban professionals sneaking into American iTunes.

They have given up on traditional TV viewing.

Eden, sheepish about her illegal downloads, admits that even if the shows she likes were on free-to-air channels, she would still download TV series.

"I like to have the programmes on my laptop. Then they're portable and if I'm on a long bus trip I can watch them if I like."

Norris, who spends his working days with young students, sums up Eden's generation: "They are accustomed to watching what they want, when they want, how they want, wherever they want."

Broadcasters are scrambling to improve their on-demand services to lure them back.

But this won't help the Danuta Szymaniks who watch television on the TV set as they always have. They will continue to flick through the reality shows and wonder what happened to New Zealand TV.

This is not their golden age.

- Herald on Sunday

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