Twitter not so trivial when it comes to TV

By Joanna Mathers

As the Nothing Trivial cast prepare to film a one-off special to tie up loose ends left after the show was controversially axed, Joanna Mathers reports on the role social media played in forcing producers' hands

From left: Nothing Trivial cast members Blair Strang, Nicole Whippy, Debbie Newby-Ward and Shane Cortese. Photo / Doug Sherring
From left: Nothing Trivial cast members Blair Strang, Nicole Whippy, Debbie Newby-Ward and Shane Cortese. Photo / Doug Sherring

As cliffhangers go, the Nothing Trivial finale was of the white-knuckle, cling-on-for-dear-life variety, the type of cliffhanger that leaves an audience desperate for closure.

When crimson-clad bridesmaid Catherine stepped out from Blair and Emma's wedding reception to retrieve a letter from her car (which contained her response to Mac's question about reconciliation) viewers up and down the country breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The golden couple was set to finally find happiness, to climb aboard a plane and soar across the clear blue skies for a romantic reconciliation in Paris.

But TV types don't like trite endings or easy resolutions, and the creators of Nothing Trivial are no exception. Seconds after the smiling Catherine, played by Tandi Wright, retrieved the letter, she was mown down by a vehicle. The show concluded with a close-up of Mac leaving the reception and striding towards an unknown future.

The collective sigh of relief quickly turned into a gasp of horror.

Love and life in the balance always makes for excellent viewing. Audiences adore suspense, and the predictions and pontifications around the office watercooler the following day. But audiences don't love being left in the air — and they didn't love the dramatic twist at the end of season three of Nothing Trivial, which had just been axed by TVNZ.

The show's demise came as a surprise to everyone involved. Two episodes before the dramatic season finale, TVNZ had announced it would be no longer.

Its ratings weren't up to scratch, apparently, down from 412,000 in 2012 to 258,000 last year. And Catherine looked doomed to forever teeter on the precipice of televisual life and death.

Social media was abuzz with dissenting voices. Fans and actors took to Twitter and Facebook to voice their frustration at the seemingly heartless network decision to axe their beloved show.

Shane Cortese, who played Mac, summed it up with this tweet: "No series 4. Such a bummer. Especially when you see how this series ends! Shame to lose more drama."

Social media is playing an increasingly important role when it comes to how we engage with what we watch. It is being used to vent anger and frustration at unpopular characters and unwanted plot twists. It speaks directly to those who create our TV shows, telling them just how connected we are to their characters.

In the case of Nothing Trivial, it was used by fans to exert pressure on the decision-makers who ripped their favourite show from them.

Nicole Whippy, who played Michelle Hardcastle, laughs as she remembers finding out about the two-hour resurrection of the show, which she firmly believes was the result of social media pressure.

"It's funny, I found out that the two-hour finale show was going ahead via Twitter. It was announced on social media before it was announced to us."

She and her fellow cast members had taken the show's discontinuation hard. Producers had told her about its axing at the end of last year, which was a surprise, as much of season four had been written.

"It was really hard, especially as we found out while the show was still on air," she says.

But public opinion was on the side of Nothing Trivial and it didn't take long for a "Bring Back Nothing Trivial" Facebook page to emerge.

"The support we received was overwhelming. It was incredibly heartening as an actor to know that people really loved and engaged with the characters," Whippy says.

Co-star Cortese agrees. "Even today at the school gate someone told me how much they loved the show," he says.

He, too, was amazed by the social media reaction. "We make television for one reason: for people to watch it. So the response via social media and in person was amazing."

The Facebook page set up in the aftermath gave disgruntled fans a focal point for their frustration. Although the page's facilitator is elusive (Herald on Sunday tried to make contact but with no luck), the page is hot public property. It had 8,000 "likes" within a few weeks of its launch in late November, and now has more than 9,100.

Alongside the Facebook page, an online petition to bring back the show was also launched. Set up by former TVNZ executive Geoff Lawson — a keen Nothing Trivial fan — it got more than 2,000 virtual signatures.

The online pressure seemed to work. In March, just a few months after the show was scrapped, TVNZ announced a two-hour wrap-up episode would be filmed.

Says Whippy: "I truly believe that the Facebook page was the reason for the show being continued. And now we have nothing to lose; we know we have 260,000 loyal fans behind us."


Although the show's actors have experienced the power of social media as a tool of engagement with their audiences, industry insiders say it isn't the primary reason for bringing back the show for a final airing.

Andrew Shaw, general manager of commissioning and production at TVNZ, says the decision to create a final "wrap-up" show can be attributed to many different factors. "There was a sense that we needed to tidy up the final storyline," he says.

"Sure, we did take notice of what was happening on social media, but this wasn't the pivotal factor in the decision."

Shaw does acknowledge, however, the increasing role social media plays in engaging with a television audience.

"When it comes to commissioning new television shows, the creative community is looking at what is going on with social media. Successful drama and comedy creators look for what people are interested in and what will resonate with the audience."

But he says there are other, more important, considerations when making decisions around the future of a television show.

"Average audience ratings, commercial factors and, to a lesser extent, critical opinion are the most important factors when deciding the future of a show."

TV3's director of programming, Mark Caulton, agrees. There was a similar outcry on social media when TV3 announced last year its cult hit The Almighty Johnsons was to be axed.

(As an aside, the show also starred Cortese so the actor faced the axing of two shows in which he was working being axed in the same week.)

Pressure to renew the show was compelling. Followers of the Facebook page urged the creators to bring it back for a fourth series.

But Caulton says social media opinion hasn't, and won't, influence the network's decision about the show.

"A fourth Almighty Johnsons series is a no-go," he says. "I really believe the show ran its course."

For a commercial network such as MediaWorks, which owns TV3, ratings are king, Caulton says. And shows with good ratings have the biggest social media presence.

"The Block is our biggest show and it is the show with the highest social media engagement [more than 63,000 'likers' on Facebook]."

Although online pressure hasn't affected decisions around the future of The Almighty Johnsons, Caulton acknowledges that writers and producers are extremely interested in any public feedback on characters and storylines.

"We are always mindful of feedback, whatever form it takes. Social media is one form of feedback — we also get emails, phone calls and letters about what's happening on our shows."

When it comes to Kiwi TV success stories, you can't go past Shortland Street.

Now in its 22nd year, the show regularly tops the 400,000 mark for nightly viewers. The Shortland Street Facebook page is equally as popular, with nearly 400,000 likes.

Simon Bennett is the head of production at South Pacific Pictures and has been involved with the show for 18 years.

He is very engaged with social media himself, monitoring Twitter nightly.

"I have a saved search for Shortland Street on my Twitter account and watch the real-time feed of comments as the show airs," he explains.

The ability for real-time engagement with an audience via Twitter is the zeitgeist version of the theatre experience, he says.

"People engage with the show via Twitter in a similar way to how audiences engage with theatre performances.

"You can almost hear people cough, get fidgety, whisper to each other. Twitter sparks and generates a lot of discussion."

Bennett is also one of the administrators of the Shortland Street Facebook page.

He says Twitter audiences are active and engaged but much of the Facebook activity is offensive or even abusive.

"I spend a lot of time removing offensive material from the Facebook page before it gets posted"

He discourages actors from reading what is said about their characters on social media.

"Shortland Street has a very conservative audience, and viewers always tend to hate new characters.

"They [the actors] have to deal with enough already without reading torrents of abuse coming at them from the ether."

Bennett uses social media to determine how characters and plots resonate with audiences.

"I read everything that's posted. It helps to establish whether the stories are working as intended."

As the show is written and filmed months in advance, social media feedback about characters or plots doesn't make an immediate impact.

But Bennett says if there is universal response to a particular character on social media "we might make tweaks around the edges of that character.

"But any changes will be incremental and subtle."

Viewers also use social media to inform TV creators when they've made a mistake.

"Recently, Chris Warner decided to father Grace Kwan's baby.

"In the story, she was getting older and her biological clock was ticking and wanted a baby," Bennett says.

"Unfortunately, reruns of the show on Heartland featured a conversation in which Grace's character was said to have had twins in Australia.

"People were quick to let us know about this via social media.

"It actually taught us a great lesson about how to deal with off-screen characters in the future."


Whether Nothing Trivial's return to the small screen is because of social media pressure or other factors, there's no denying Facebook and Twitter gave the show's ardent fans the opportunity to vocalise their discontent.

Lawson, who organised the online petition, is sad to see another New Zealand drama bite the dust.

"Ratings shouldn't be the be-all and end-all," he says. "I am passionate about seeing New Zealand represented on air."

And he isn't afraid to call out TVNZ on their decision to can the show. "I think it was an appalling decision. And it was hugely disrespectful to leave the fans in limbo like that."

But he is pleased TVNZ has decided to tie up the loose ends.

"The two-hour special goes some way to providing fans with that annoying term 'closure'. But I am hugely disappointed they didn't have a longer-term vision.

"Nothing Trivial was a contemporary look at what we are and what we do as Kiwis. And we need more of that on our screens."

- Herald on Sunday

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