Free-to-air networks are fighting for a bigger share of diminishing TV advertising revenue, and drama is at the costly edge of that battle.

The biggest asset for free-to-air TV is local content, because a) it tends to rate very well, and b) it is a point of difference against pay TV.

But networks have become scared of new things. Short-term, that caution might make sense, but to me, there are dangers in free-to-air being the home of the bland, the tried and true.

The fundamental issue is what local shows free-to-air broadcasters commission.


And central to that is the fact that drama - even with generous taxpayer handouts - is the most expensive programming to make.

Three TV producers (from different disciplines) I spoke to on condition of anonymity said that with the networks facing a tough time retaining advertising income this year, they had become risk-averse.

In my opinion, in the longer term, that approach is itself risky. After all, the TV audience has ready access to a golden era of international drama, available on pay TV.

Filthy Rich

In my opinion, the newest drama on TV2, called Filthy Rich, illustrates the danger of sticking with the tried and true.

New Zealand on Air is investing $8.25 million of taxpayers' money in Filthy Rich, which was promoted as a fresh and innovative show. On the face of it, the main innovation has been in screening it twice a week.

Both NZOA and TVNZ are standing by Filthy Rich, and note that it has delivered to the demographic it was aimed at.

It looks as though Filthy Rich will be a financial success, and traditionally that is what commercial TV aims for. In New Zealand "public service" TV, the only way we judge these things is on the advertising return on investment.

But Filthy Rich lacks courage in my view, and as a headline on a Herald review put it, offers viewers "more of the same". Duncan Greive, a reviewer for the Herald, gave the first episode a harsh review on February 16, saying it had become a caricature of New Zealand "with heartless wealth and plucky poverty, a cynical pimp and a conniving businesswoman."


Greive's is only one view, but the criticism rang true for industry players I spoke to. They said networks facing income woes had become risk-averse in their funding applications, and while NZ on Air was willing to back risky propositions, the networks were not.

NZ drama

NZ on Air chief executive Jane Wrightson went in to bat for Filthy Rich in her monthly newsletter to the production industry. This week, she was "watching discussions".

"We all know it's hard for a drama series to get established," she said in the newsletter. "Let's be patient and support the talents of the large numbers of people involved in this project."

TV3 is focused on reality show formats, but in my opinion, if free-to-air TV is to survive the next two or three years of change, networks have to take more risks, not fewer, in competing with international fare.


Here's another case in point.

Good on TVNZ for starting a new niche channel that will introduce more male-oriented content into prime time.

Called Duke, the new channel launches on March 20. Bizarrely, some feminist writers took offence at the very notion of a male-oriented channel. But in my view, why be cautious? If it is going to be a bloke's channel, make it blokey.

Filthy ratings

TVNZ head of content Jeff Latch said Filthy Rich had rated well and performed especially strongly through its OnDemand service.

"All the talk about Filthy Rich tends to ignore one important fact - that is that the show is consistently and easily winning its timeslot," he said.

"It's a great show and we're really proud of it.

"Drama is absolutely critical to our schedules at 8.30pm and 9.30pm."

Latch said there had been significant changes in the way drama was consumed, with far more time-shifted and catch-up viewing than in previous years.

According to consolidated figures to March 8, excluding OnDemand, Filthy Rich is the number one show in TV2's target demographic of 18-49-year-olds, with an average audience of 153,700 viewers.

Filthy Rich episodes have been streamed more than 265,000 times since launch, rivalling TVNZ OnDemand's Shortland Street for streams per episode.

Personal politics

Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Stephen Parker
Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Stephen Parker

MediaWorks' withdrawal from current affairs and its focus on reality shows has led to the perception that it is being dumbed down.

Chief executive Mark Weldon's "no dissent" management style and a flood of staff departures have led to criticism in the media, and on the left of the political spectrum.

The commonly advanced view from many of those critics is that the current management is taking TV3 to hell in a handcart.

I have had my own differences with Weldon, but I believe that to a degree, coverage of MediaWorks has been personalised against him.

With an open letter this week from Labour MP Jacinda Ardern, TV3's shift appears to have become politicised.

Ardern accused Weldon of destroying TV3.

I found the political attack on a private business appalling.

I hate to think of the reaction from the Left if a National politician had attacked another media business for its business plan.

Admittedly, TV3 plays a big part in the culture.

I asked Ardern if it was appropriate for a senior politician to attack the business plan of a private business.

She said she would not have written the letter if she was a Cabinet Minister.

"I am an Opposition MP, and on this occasion chose to use my voice to articulate concerns that I know are shared by many."

She did not question MediaWorks' editorial line - but lamented that MediaWorks did not have one.

"It was not a Left or Right issue - all of us are toast without a strong media in New Zealand; that includes investigative journalism and current affairs."

However Ardern did acknowledge the letter could have been addressed to the MediaWorks board of directors, not Weldon directly.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that NZ on Air had put in $15m worth of funding into Filthy Rich. The corrected figure is $8.25m.