The real problem with New Zealand TV drama

When The Spinoff's Duncan Greive reviewed Filthy Rich two weeks ago, he was overwhelmed with messages from a depressed New Zealand TV industry. He looks at what they had to say.

A couple of weeks back I watched the first episode of Filthy Rich, a new drama currently four episodes into its 20 episode run on TV2.

I thought it was a profoundly dumb and dated show (not to mention its seeming conceptually identical to a 1982 production with the same name), and wrote as much in a review for the Herald the following morning.

READ MORE: Filthy Rich just more of the same

The review talked about how the show felt so hollow, so far from a New Zealand I'd ever seen, and so unlikely to leave even a glancing impression on our culture. But it also dwelled on the process which birthed the show, and asked why we repeatedly create such mediocrity in dramatic television when across all other creative spheres we are capable of such originality.

The review created a little storm. It was the most read story in the Herald's entertainment section that day, but more interestingly, it prompted a torrent of direct messages and emails to me, almost all despairing about the system that brought Filthy Rich into the world.

Predictably, the makers disagreed. An acquaintance tagged me into a long and thoughtful response on Facebook. Amongst those who replied was Gavin Strawhan, one of the show show's creators. It's understandable that, given the immense effort he'll have put in to get the show made, he'd feel protective about it. I did think, though, that there was a dismissive arrogance about how he opened his defence of the show:

"Eloquently put, Ms Nathan, by someone who actually knows the business from the inside, instead of people who think they know about television because, they watch it."

Actor Josh McKenzie, drives a Lamborghini Huracan on Filthy Rich.
Actor Josh McKenzie, drives a Lamborghini Huracan on Filthy Rich.

The interesting thing to me was that of the 22 messages I received in the days following the review, almost all were from people working in television - who did know the business from the inside. Many of them have had long, successful careers. One, an actor with one of the most acclaimed shows of the last decade on her CV, wrote that she had "deliberately walked away from TV" because of the way the big dramatic shows continued to be made by the same small set of people.

They wrote with a sense of palpable anguish, one I sensed was borne of the creeping feeling they were getting old and wasting the best years of their creative lives making stuff that no one really cared for or about. These were smart, talented people who found themselves unable to put that intelligence and aptitude on screen.

I was struck by how much thought they'd put into this issue, how precise their diagnoses of the problems were, and how constructive their various solutions.

So I replied to a couple of the most articulate, asking if I were able to quote from their emails - with their identities obscured, naturally, because no one who likes to work in this country feels safe criticising the process in public. They graciously agreed, so here they are, slightly edited for length:

"It's not just the writing hacks who should shoulder all the blame."

- an award-winning writer of a number of NZ On Air-funded shows:

One of the the problems is the way the funding model works. As you know, NZ On Air can only fund the alternatives put up in front of them by the networks.

I remember going in to TVNZ, say, to pitch two or three really innovative series ideas to whomever held the commissioning power at the time (mostly they're ex-producers/writers/actors who have found being a freelancer too tough and want a sinecure).

Within five minutes or less, you'd know those ideas were dead in the water. Because you had a business to run, family to feed, mortgage to pay, etc, you'd have to take advantage of that audience with the Pope. So you'd ask 'So what did you have in mind?'

The commissioner would describe, say, a size nine brown shoe, and because you had a business to run, you'd say, of course, 'What a coincidence! Guess what we've got in development - a size 9 brown shoe!'

New Zealand's television industry has been accused of making shows that all follow the same formula, including Filthy Rich (pictured).
New Zealand's television industry has been accused of making shows that all follow the same formula, including Filthy Rich (pictured).

A friend used to say, 'The only thing worse than not getting a series is getting a series.'

I didn't understand what he meant until I was myself walking out of a network building, knowing that the next two years of my writing life would be devoted to trying to make a size nine brown shoe fly.

But, it's important to note, I was grateful too. Another two years of not working in the fish factory or, more likely, discovering that I had absolutely no marketable skills (apart from telling lies for a living)."

"It's the same TVNZ drama commissioner working with the same senior writers"

- from a senior manager with over a decade's experience in channels and production companies:

"It touched a nerve within the local industry for a number of reasons:

• TVNZ really need the show to work. It is their great white hope for local drama on TV2 - aside from Shortland Street, of course. And the twice-a-week scheduling adds even more commercial pressure. They haven't had a real hour-long drama ratings success on TV2 since Go Girls and that series launched seven years ago (Feb 19, 2009 - almost 7 years to the day, actually!) which was by no means perfect but had a terrific core cast and felt fresh at the time.

• Your review of Filthy Rich was on point in that the series concept and execution is tired and the main reason for that, which many people in the local industry are well aware of, is that it's the same TVNZ drama commissioner working with the same senior writers who edit their own or each other's work. They are all over 50 and writing for a channel whose target demographic is 18-49.

• NZ on Air are feeling significant political pressure under the National government. Every perceived 'failure' they fund weakens their position. They take any criticism very harshly at the moment and it feels increasingly like NZOA is defending not just its funding decisions but also its right to exist.

New Zealand drama Filthy Rich has had some bad reviews.
New Zealand drama Filthy Rich has had some bad reviews.

Dirty Laundry, as you know, is currently in production for TV One with the same creative team behind it. Any fallout around Filthy Rich (certainly in media and screen industry circles) will impact on how that show is received. I dare say it'll rate reasonably well as it's on TV One but it's unlikely to feel markedly different to anything else. And from what I've heard around the traps, it is even more of an Outrageous Fortune wannabe than Filthy Rich. (If you just swap out 'middle class' for 'working class/bogans' and the mum going away to prison instead of the dad and the series descriptions are virtually the same!)"

Each writer comes from the same place, ultimately. They're saying the larger share of the blame for another expensive, clichéd and pointless drama lies with the commissioners. Not NZ on Air - which only really has a veto power (one they recently exercised on TV3's proposed soap Trinity Point). Nor even with the writers, who can only make the shows the networks agree to screen.

Instead it's the commissioners at TVNZ and, to a lesser extent, TV3 and Prime: a vanishingly small group, numbering between five and ten people, who have exercised enormous influence over hundreds of millions of dollars of public money over the past couple of decades.

The troublesome part is that they are approaching those commissioning meetings with a very specific vision of their audience in mind. In so doing, their intention becomes less about creating something great, than creating something which can be sold to advertisers, and not alienate their audience.

This is all well and good - I have no issue with any business trying to make money for its shareholders. But if the shows value that purpose above any creative or cultural goal - as seems to be manifestly the case - then it begs the question: what are we doing this for?

NZ On Air's website states that they "champion local content that engages, stimulates, and satisfies intended audiences."

It's hard to argue that shows like Filthy Rich are achieving that end. I was hardly the only critic to find fault with the show - The Listener's Diana Wichtel savaged it with a characteristic precision:

"Filthy Rich is, so far, Gloss without much gloss, Billions with fewer billions and Revenge without much at stake."

Similarly, comments in response to the review - both from its intended audience and industry members - were equally scathing.

This would all be simply the carping of the disatisfied and disenfranchised if the one true god of ratings was satisfied. Unfortunately, despite a promising debut, things have fallen away significantly over the four episodes to date.

These figures are sourced from a Nielsen account, and exclude time-shifted and on demand views, which is how a significant percentage of 18-49s access content. But the trend is clear, and it's not good. It suggests a perfect storm of critical opprobrium, industry fatigue and audience disinterest has hit the show.

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All this is happening in an era when the distribution stranglehold - which had been the source of so much of the commissioners' power - is coming to an end. Stuff today announced their recruitment of Paula Penfold's 3D team, while NZME's WatchMe is planning to expand beyond comedy.

It seems, then, that it's a perfect time to have a national conversation about what it is we're doing with our television funding. And why.

- The Spinoff

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