Teina Pora, who served 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, is to be the subject of a telemovie.

NZ On Air announced its latest round of funding decisions this week, which include the allocation of nearly $3 million for In Dark Places.

The feature, to screen on TVNZ1, will be made as part of NZOA’s Te Rautaki Māori strategy, which is about ensuring authenticity by having key roles such as producers, directors and writers filled by Māori.

In Dark Places will be adapted from Māori writer and film director Michael Bennett’s recent book of the same name.

NZOA will also fund a telefeature based on a 1997 interview with Osama Bin Laden, conducted by expat New Zealand journalist Peter Arnett. War Stories, a co-production with a German company, will get nearly $2.7 million.

It will screen locally on TVNZ1 but is likely to have strong international appeal, and to earn NZOA some return on its investment.

In a first, the funding body is putting $200,000 into a feature-length musical based on the successful stage show Daffodils. The New Zealand Film Commission is also putting money into the feature which will be shown on TVNZ1.

But the big money in this round has gone to Three’s drama, Westside.

South Pacific Pictures will get more than $6.5 million to produce another eight one-hour episodes of the Outrageous Fortune spinoff.

Funding drama is a high-risk business for NZOA, as few succeed in the ratings. Westside has performed relatively well for Three but the latest series, currently on air, has been impacted by being up against the latest episodes of Game of Thrones.

One season of GoT is estimated to cost nearly the same as NZOA’s entire annual budget of $130 million.

NZOA has a policy that it won’t fund more than six series of a drama so Three will be looking at what it can do to keep its share of the drama money. Luckily for Three, the same policy doesn’t apply to comedy, or two of its top programmes would be in trouble.

NZOA has renewed its funding for Jono and Ben and 7 Days. Between them, the shows will get nearly $1.8 million. The big question NZOA must be asking itself is whether these commercially-successful shows really need public money.

Three will argue they do, but at some point NZOA must be tempted to call its bluff.

In the network’s favour is that very few local comedy shows, apart from these two, have been ratings winners. TVNZ has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the comedy genre. NZOA funding is also seen as supporting the industry in that these shows serve as incubators for comedians, writers and producers.

Ben Boyce (L) and Jono Pryor (R) with ‘Jono and Ben’ collaborator Guy Williams. NZ On Air is bringing their funding back for another year. Photo: Getty Images

The state broadcaster benefits from the same sort of approach with Country Calendar. NZOA have part-funded the rural show for a staggering 26 years and, in this round, gave it another $583,000.

There is hardly a more successful show on television than Country Calendar which is regularly viewed by more than 600,000 people, and has a major car company as a sponsor.

TVNZ must be making money out of the show, so why does it need NZOA support? That said, there are few shows that better reflect NZOA’s brief of reflecting life in New Zealand.

This is the first funding round that has been open to all media and all platforms, but NZOA has chosen to do little more than dip its toe in the water.

Most of the money has still gone to the mainstream broadcasters, TVNZ, Three and Prime.

NZME (publisher of the NZ Herald) gets nearly $150,000 for four 10-minute stories on the music festival Rhythm and Vines.

A production company will also receive $75,000 to make a 20-minute programme for NZME on whāngai, the customary Māori practice where a child is brought up by a relative.

In a move that will raise executive eyebrows at TVNZ and Three, NZOA is funding a production for VICE, the media company whose VICELAND channel is carried on pay television operator Sky.

A production company called White Paper Industries is getting $75,000 to make three 20-minute programmes telling “authentic stories from people living on the fringes of society – the marginalised and misunderstood.”

One of the most interesting decisions, and perhaps the boldest, by NZOA involves RNZ.

The well-regarded TV production company, Great Southern Television, is getting $468,000 to make an interactive online project on the New Zealand Wars.

It includes a documentary, podcast, battle reconstruction and online museum, telling the story of the 19th century wars between the Crown and Māori.

Great Southern produces The Hui (partly funded by NZOA) for Three.

Key figures at The Hui are Māori journalists Mihi Forbes (presenter) and Annabel Lee-Harris (executive producer). They will both play leading roles in the production of New Zealand Wars.

The media industry and NZOA will be looking closely at the success or failure of these programmes, particularly the VICE experiment which is clearly aimed at reaching a younger audience.

If they do well, then more money will flow the way of non-television platforms, but if they don’t then the mainstream TV networks will lobby hard to retain the status quo which is now vital to their profitability.

*Disclosure: Newsroom is part of a joint venture with Ocean Answers to produce three one-hour programmes for Prime. Ocean Predators received $767,030.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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