Losing the plot

by Fiona Rae / 20 December, 2003
Story twists, unusual characters, mystery and suspense ... no, not the pitch for a new local TV drama, more a description of life behind the small screen as independent producers square off with TVNZ.

In the tough world of local television production, drama is the toughest road of all. It's very easy to get it wrong (Love Bites), to be excoriated by critics (Willy Nilly) or wither in the wrong time slot (Being Eve). It's also the most costly.

The coincidental demise of The Strip (TV3), Street Legal (TV2) and Mercy Peak (TV1), which has wrapped and has only 10 episodes left to screen, has left a gap in TV schedules where local drama should be.

TVNZ's 2004 line-up announcement last month wasn't terribly encouraging, either. It seemed to be undergoing an attack of the killer reality series: nine from the US, and seven out of nine new local series are of the reality ilk.

There are some new, fun dramas coming from overseas: Spooks from Britain, Nip/Tuck from the US, but as for local drama, there were, as they say in current parlance, not many, if any.

That said, there are a number of projects on the way (see box). There is more money for local drama production this year: NZ On Air has $18.9 million for the year to June 2004 ($18.1 million last year), while TVNZ has been funded directly with some $13 million this year to fulfil its charter obligations - some of which will find its way into drama.

In theory, then, things should be looking up for the local independent production industry. But behind the scenes another drama has been unfolding. Tales of fear and loathing and dark mutterings about TVNZ empire building have been heard in the outside world.

Some independent producers are saying that TVNZ wants all the NZ On Air money for itself and that it wants to take a greater amount of production in house - even that it is doing an in-house drama. That, in short, it wants to be the biggest producer in town, with the power to make or break independent production houses.

In one corner is SPADA (Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand), representing independent producers, which says that TVNZ wants to take intellectual property and international distribution rights from producers - so-called "back-end" rights.

"This is the feedback we're getting," says SPADA's Penelope Borland. "You can boil it down to the fact that at the same time that TVNZ under the charter has become a public broadcaster, it has been acting in a more commercially aggressive manner."

"People are saying this is the worst they've ever known it," says one independent producer. "It's hard to describe how bleak people feel."

Over at South Pacific Pictures, the country's most prolific independent producer of drama, chief executive John Barnett has no doubt that TVNZ is behaving in a completely new way.

"The network is seeking benefits that aren't its right and, don't forget, it gets the advertising revenue from putting a programme to air. It's not like it's taking this huge risk and not getting anything for it."

It's a situation that has already been played out in Britain, where many independent producers were left with no back-end rights in the face of a dominant BBC. The British Government has now moved to protect the independent sector via its new Communications Bill.

Here, it's TVNZ's charter that will protect the indies, says Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey. It contains an unambiguous commitment for TVNZ to support the industry, something that has been reiterated by TVNZ CEO Ian Fraser.

"I believe Ian when he says that," says Barnett. "It's just that it's not being practised that way."

TVNZ's head of commissioning Tony Holden begs to differ, however.

"If you can show me a contract that's any different, I'd love to see it," says Holden. "We've guaranteed with our protocol that if someone comes to us with an idea, we agree and accept absolutely that that is their own intellectual property." Overseas distribution rights, however, are up for negotiation and always have been.

"Every show is a negotiation with the producer. If it makes sense for the producer to distribute, then that's their choice," he says. "All we're saying is, 'Who's going to do what?' Both the producer and TVNZ have an interest, because they've got an investment in something, same as NZ On Air does, same as the Film Commission does. So, if you're suggesting that TVNZ should put its money up and walk away and not ask for any of it back ... the thing I would also say is, hey, NZ On Air's investment into TV3 - does that money come back into the pool, with a dividend to the government, or does it go to CanWest in Canada?"

Producers, Holden says, are worrying unnecessarily. But worry they have: at a speech at the recent SPADA conference in Wellington, producer Dave Gibson claimed that TVNZ was lobbying the government to have funder NZ On Air disestablished and for TVNZ to be funded directly. Gibson also cited increased in-house production by TVNZ as a significant threat to independent producers.

"There's no plan to bring all or more programmes in house," says Holden, giving as an example the decision to give production of What Now? to the indie Whitebait Productions in Christchurch.

"So it's just not true and there is no suggestion that that's going to be the case. We've just done an open pitch and, increasingly, we'll go contestable pitching - like the garden show," he says.

Broadcasting Minister Maharey has also moved to assure the independent sector, commenting before his SPADA speech that TVNZ would not be getting all the money - in other words, that contestable funding is safe.

Borland says, however, that there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the industry. Two different government reviews that are going on, one of all funding agencies and the other of broadcasting, have the independent sector worried that a super agency will be created to fund broadcasting.

"You end up with only one door to go through," says Borland, "and internationally, and commercially for that matter, what seems to be the case is that the fewer doors you have, the worse it is for the independents."

The industry is also waiting to see TVNZ put its money where its mouth is. "It's very mystifying," she says, "because the language and the commitment is there, but we have yet to see the actions and the follow-through."

Yet, in the long run, what difference does it make who produces the programmes or what avenue the money comes through, as long as there's some decent stuff on the box, right? Why should we bother about what is ostensibly an internecine squabble in an industry rife with what could be politely termed strong personalities?

Well, the only way production houses can develop and grow, says Borland, is by being able to have some decent share in intellectual property rights and be able to exploit at the back end. Losing rights would squeeze the industry.

"It just would mean potentially that the independent production sector in New Zealand is unable to grow and it makes survival precarious," she says.

Barnett notes the variety of ideas that come from a robust independent sector, and is fond of pointing out that the industry is thoroughly interconnected. For many workers, Shortland Street equals Xena and Hercules equals Lord of the Rings - and beyond, to all those sexy film productions the government wants to see being made here.

"If you take away the infrastructure of local television production, it doesn't matter how many incentives you put in place to bring overseas production to New Zealand, there won't be anybody here to do the work."

Holden, on the other hand, is upbeat about the charter era: he says that there will be new initiatives next year for producers and writers.

"The exciting thing is that you can do projects that push the boundaries a bit. If we try and turn out a CSI or something like that here, we just couldn't do that. We've got to do something that works for our audience and has got innovation and quality."

LOCAL DRAMAS COMING UP NEXT YEAR

So far, TVNZ has announced a new 13-part series for TV2, The Insider's Guide to Happiness, and a new comedy, Serial Killers, which will screen on TV1.

In addition, there are two new children's series, and seven new episodes of the Maori "Twilight Zone" series, Mataku, are to be made and will screen on TV1, rather than TV3.

The Insider's Guide to Happiness, which has received a little over $4.8 million from NZ On Air, is described by the network as a contemporary drama. The story follows seven urban characters whose stories eventually intersect. Children's drama Holly's Heroes is in pre-production, and co-producer the Gibson Group is at present searching for 14-year-old girls to audition.

The comedy Serial Killers, based on the play of the same name, is set behind the scenes of a weekday soap opera. Writer James Griffin and actors Robyn Malcolm, John Leigh, Oliver Driver and Tandi Wright are all former Shortland Streeters; Dean O'Gorman and Being Eve's Fleur Saville also star.

TV3 has commissioned New Zealand's first adult animated cartoon, Bro'Town, which features and is being written by the Naked Samoans. TV3 is also about to put the ink on a contract for a major series and will be screening films Sione's

Wedding and Spooked.

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