Should NZ On Air have funded Brokenwood over a new Soap?

Neill Rea drives the Brokenwood Police car in the 2015 Kumeu Christmas parade

Neill Rea drives the Brokenwood Police car in the 2015 Kumeu Christmas parade

After NZ On Air announced it wouldn’t be funding Mediaworks proposed new weeknight soap opera but would be funding a third season of The Brokenwood Mysteries, David Finch wrote this in the comments:

I have no particular opinion on the virtues of TV3’s planned soap (and no affiliation with its producers) but I hope NZ on Air will be publicly pressed to explain themselves a little more. They say a soap doesn’t match their priorities, which begs the question… whose priorities exactly? What kind of influence does NZ on Air truly have on what we watch? If they are guided by the power of ratings, which is the only measure of success which matters to our current government, then there is at least as much logic in investing in a nightly soap on a major channel than there is in pumping another $4m subsidy to little-watched Prime for Brokenwood Mysteries (just for example). The one soap we have consistently tops the ratings for its host channel after 25 years despite an increasingly fragmented market and changing viewing habits. It has out-rated every other drama series that NZ on Air has ever invested in (except perhaps Outrageous Fortune at its very peak). Which would be less embarrassing if those other shows really were ambitious serious non-commercial dramas. But they’re not. Most of them have been flashy soaps with bigger budgets. NZ on Air say they favour “returning series”, but a series designed to return four nights a week indefinitely doesn’t interest them.

David raises a number of good points which we’ll get to but first, let’s take a look at the numbers.

In 2014, the four episode series The Brokenwood Mysteries debuted on Sky Television’s free-to-air channel Prime with thanks to funding from NZ On Air to the tune of $4,276,000. It had an average audience of 157,290 viewers which, for Prime, is reasonably good.

The second season received funding of $4,036,000 and had an average audience of 110,040 viewers per episode, a 30% decline on the first season. The third season funding of $4,116,000 has just been announced.

In 2014, NZ On Air agreed to fund a second season of The X Factor NZ on TV3 but the level of funding was reduced by 50%.

In 1991, Shortland Street was given $3,000,000 in taxpayer funding to get the ball rolling. Over the next 3 years, NZ On Air dished out $2,500,000, $2,250,000 and then $1,138,800. In 1991, this was $13,043.48 per episode and then $4,555.20 per episode in 1994.

Contrast this with the latest funding decision. The Brokenwood Mysteries is benefiting from a budget of more than a million dollars per episode for a third season of a show that has seen a 30% decline in ratings for a channel that is owned by a well resourced pay TV network.

While there are some considerable cost differences between a nightly drama and short run series, I’m not convinced this is the best use of taxpayer money.

NZ On Air has a stated target of 300,000 viewers for funded programs. The first season of The Brokenwood Mysteries under performed by NZ On Air’s own standards by 48% and season 2 by 63% and yet a third season, which will inevitably rate similarly or lower, has received funding without any reduction in funding on previous seasons. The Brokenwood Mysteries is also produced by the same company that produces Shortland Street.

While Shortland Street has seen a 20% fall in its audience in 2015, it is still the most watched show on television in New Zealand. A new soap on TV3 may not necessarily be the adrenaline boost that Mediaworks needs but it would certainly create more jobs and opportunities for the screen industry in New Zealand.

Would it deliver higher audiences than The Brokenwood Mysteries? Would it attract an audience of a younger age group? Would it reach a wider audience? It is hard to see how a Mediaworks soap would perform worse.

However, it is unlikely that it was simply $4,000,000 that Mediaworks were after. What will be interesting now is whether or not the owners of Mediaworks can see sense in dumping funding into making the new soap fly. If it were to work, there is all the opportunity to sell the series to the rest of the world, either to broadcasters or streaming services. The fact that those options are available now could mean the feasibility is far greater than simply just focusing on the local market. Considering how hot New Zealand is, with the right storyline and characters, perhaps a new soap could work…

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About the author

Regan is one of the co-founders of Throng Media.
If they're on, I'm usually watching Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, 24, Battlestar Galactica, The X Factor, Survivor, House of Cards, Mad Men and the NRL.
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  • Harrison

    Well Brokenwood Mysteries did well overseas, particularly in France where it had an average of 3.4 MILLION viewers per episode!

    • David Finch

      Great (really). I didn’t mean to make this Brokenwood vs The Soap but you raise an interesting point: do overseas sales influence NZ on Air’s funding decisions? Should they? I thought NZ on Air was a mechanism to ensure the delivery of a wide range of NZ programmes to NZ audiences.

      • Regan Cunliffe

        Finally! Some common ground, Yay!

        While it’s not necessarily Brokenwood vs The Soap in a funding sense, the announcement makes it appear as though it was one over the other. The reality is that what was being requested may have been significantly more and therefore it was never really in contention for funding.

        However, as Harrison points out, France 3 screened The Brokenwood Mysteries to a rather large French audience. While that’s good in some sense, it would appear that something is out of kilter when the cost to produce is carried by the New Zealand taxpayer and then isn’t watched by many people (in the greater scheme of things). Is this simply the New Zealand taxpayer, subsidising programming for the French while Sky clip the ticket on the way through?

        You’ll recall last year when Short Poppies went to Netflix and TVNZ had to hurriedly publish the series online so that NZ On Air wasn’t seen to be providing first run, funded content to not only a subscription service, but a foreign one.

        Is NZ On Air’s objective to get New Zealand content on air or is it to get a return on their investment? Yes, it’s a balancing act, but the timing of both announcements is rather unfortunate..

        • BL

          Sky => Tax => Kickback

        • Penny Louise

          ‘You’ll recall last year when Short Poppies went to Netflix…’ – incorrect Reagan. TVNZ, which commissioned Short Poppies, was negligent in its contract with Rhys and Rosie Darby in that it failed to include a first broadcast clause in the detail. It had nothing to do with NZ On Air politics.

          • Regan Cunliffe

            “incorrect Reagan.”

            Erm, no.

            From what I understand happened is that TVNZ commissioned the series but didn’t release it when they had first planned to. In the meantime, the show had been on sold to Netflix.

            It wasn’t until I broke the story and pointed out that by delaying the show, TVNZ were gifting a taxpayer funded program to a foreign subscription service, something which is against NZ On Air’s own rules for funding.

            Short Poppies had gone to Netflix and would have screened there first had I not drawn attention to it.

  • John McCready

    This is, in my view, a shortsighted decision by NZ ON AIR which will rob the New Zealand production industry and young talent, both on and off screen of some wonderful growth opportunities. No other programme has done more for New Zealand talent over the past 25 years than SHORTLAND STREET and when I think about some of the unsuccessful drama that has been funded over past years I question the rational of this particular decision.

    • Regan Cunliffe

      There is also possibly a bigger picture question here. What about the security of everyone else working at Mediaworks? If a soap could rejuvenate the channel and deliver bigger audiences to the rest of the evening, doesn’t that bode well for other local content, including that which has also been funded?

      • John McCready

        I agree a rejuvenation of TV3 would be part of the equation, which makes the decision even harder to understand. Whilst TV3’s strategy of reality programming has not been a complete success it is, in my view, the right strategy but, just not executed well enough with some poor productions in X Factor and Masterchef, coupled with poor scheduling of Masterchef, among others.

    • Dave

      It will also be fascinating to see how “the country’s most expensive new drama” Filthy Rich performs on TV2 next year. It received an impressive $8.25 million from NZ on Air for 20 episodes. These will be run as two episodes a week, over 10 weeks. I’m not convinced NZ viewers will go for multi-night drama in a massive way, despite the similar trend from reality formats.

    • Joe

      Couldn’t agree more. If it isn’t written by Rachel
      Lang or Gavin
      Strawhan, it seems NZ on Air aren’t interested. A huge let down to those who want diversity in NZ programming.

  • Guest

    THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULDN’T STOP DOING THRONG. Your insightful commentaries would be missed and cannot be compared to others. Please reconsider.

    • Regan Cunliffe

      Oh stop it. You’ll make me blush!

      • Mark Wasley

        Its true. You always write a good commentary and present a strong case.

        • Dave

          I agree as well. The “msm” of Stuff/Herald/etc will not cover or analyse these topics in depth. They will also inevitably get facts wrong and misinterpret ratings data (deliberately or maybe accidentally) to create dramatic headlines and leading stories. And the releases from the broadcasters themselves can rarely be relied upon to provide a broadly balanced perspective. A shame to see you go (if Throng isn’t picked up by someone else).

          • K

            Agree too .. will miss the site- even it someone else takes it on, will not be the same.

          • K

            P.S. Regan are you still putting out the NZ TV industry report ?

      • Dave Ian Batten

        It’s true mate! You’re awesome!

  • John McCready

    Thank goodness the current NZ ON AIR leadership was not around when SHORTLAND STREET was seeking funding. Think of all that talent that has developed from funding SHORTLAND STREET. Wrong decision not to contribute to the new soap proposal, in my view.

  • Dave Ian Batten

    Personally, I would like to see a more upbeat show on at 7pm. A lot of shows are so depressing to me, that’s why I’m so anti Shortland Street. I’d rather watch a good comedy.

    • toby_toby

      You should watch The Crowd Goes Wild. I find it very amusing.