Rena Owen stars as Dame Whina Cooper in TVNZ's new drama Whina. Photo: Supplied

The state broadcaster has revealed its programme line-up for 2022 and, as Mark Jennings writes, fans of quality drama are unusually well catered for as the network looks to balance out the usual fare of reality shows.

Rena Owen’s performance as Beth Heke in Once for Warriors left a deep impression on movie goers in the mid 90s. Her portrayal of Dame Whina Cooper in TVNZ’s new drama is likely to have a similar impact on TV audiences next year. Owen’s now-lined face seems to channel those lasting images we have of the “mother of the nation.”

It is likely to provide Owen, one of the best New Zealand actors, with another defining role. Based on the clips chosen by TVNZ for its virtual programme launch the cinematic treatment in Whina looks to be ‘old school’ and gives off a slightly grim air. Documentary audiences will probably be the target market.

TVNZ’s other big new local drama hope, Under the Vines, is almost at the other end of the spectrum – breezy, light and mildly entertaining.

Levin-born Rebecca Gibney (whose face is extraordinarily unlined) of Flying Doctors fame stars alongside Charles Edwards of The Crown and Downton Abbey.

In a scenario that we have seen before in Russell Crowe’s 2005 romantic comedy, A Good Year, two city slickers team up to run a failing vineyard. But, instead of Provence it’s Central Otago.

Under the Vines stars Charles Edwards and Rebecca Gibney. Photo: Supplied

Drama shows have become tricky propositions for free-to-air networks as the streaming services now dominate that segment of the market with an endless supply of high quality international product.

The cost versus the number of people who actually watch local drama make it a dicey economic proposition. TV3’s Head High, despite critical acclaim, came out on the wrong side of this equation and was somewhat controversially axed a few months ago.

One of the major success stories for TVNZ this year has been The Brokenwood Mysteries. Produced by South Pacific Pictures (who also produce Shortland Street), Brokenwood has been renewed and will go into its eighth season with an increased number of episodes.

Neill Rea as Mike Shepherd and Fern Sutherland as Kristin Sims in The Brokenwood Mysteries. Photo: Supplied

The show became established on Prime but was snapped up by TVNZ last year when negotiations between SPP and Sky (Prime’s owner) broke down. It has turned out to be a smart move by TVNZ’s Director of Content, Cate Slater.

“What we have found is that dramas like Brokenwood which have self-contained episodes, where you don’t have to have watched the previous episodes, are doing well. Brokenwood has a gorgeous quality about it and a great sense of humour.”

According to Slater the show is now the most successful Kiwi drama to be exported – a title previously held by Outrageous Fortune.

And, it no longer requires support from NZ on Air – a rarity for a New Zealand drama. This is partly due to a deal between SPP and US streaming service Acorn which specialises in screening drama from English-speaking countries to its North American subscribers.

Reality goes local too

Every year the TV networks launch new programmes with plenty of fanfare. Twelve months later many of them are quietly binned and never spoken about again.

The chances of a locally developed reality show surviving are the slimmest of all. The Block, Masterchef NZ, Dancing with the Stars etc. don’t count, they are imported franchises with proven track records well before they are picked up by a New Zealand network.

Despite the popularity of the reality genre with local audiences, very few locally developed shows make it to season two. This makes Moving Houses, presented by Clarke Gayford, something of a rarity. The show was dreamed-up by former TV3 executive Bettina Hollings and produced by her company Imagination TV.

The show had to earn its stripes the hard way. TVNZ’s Slater put it on TV1 at the same time as TV2’s big reality hit – Celebrity Treasure Island. Between them, the two shows gave TVNZ a 65 percent share of the audience in the time slot. In free-to-air TV terms that is dominating.

Clarke Gayford in Moving Houses. Photo: Supplied

“It has been fantastic for us, especially as Moving Houses is an original format,” says Slater.

“When Celebrity Treasure Island finished [its season] Moving Houses clearly won its slot and when they were both on, the two shows complemented each other rather than competing for audience.”

The success of Moving Houses may have encouraged Slater to try a few more homegrown reality ideas. TVNZ’s new reality shows announced this week include 60 seconds, a locally developed format where entertainers get one minute to impress talent scouts with their dancing, stand-up comedy or circus acts.

A couple of local cooking shows involving BBQing and snack-making contests have also been commissioned. It’s hard to see either having a long life.

The big deals are back

A little over 12 months ago, TVNZ wrote off $22.6 million on what it described as an “onerous contract impairment.”

It was the cost of getting out of a long running output deal with US production company, Warners. Output deals oblige the broadcaster to buy basically everything a studio makes, including a lot of second rate shows.

TVNZ, like TV3 has been getting out of these deals which no longer made sense in a declining free-to-air market.

This year, TVNZ reversed its thinking and did two major deals with US Studios. One with NBC Universal and other with Viacom CBS. What’s changed?

Two things – and they both involve streaming.

TVNZ’s OnDemand needs more content. It already reaches over a million viewers a week but the broadcaster wants to ram home its advantage before Discovery (the owners of TV3) sorts out its streaming strategy in this market.

Secondly, some of the US studios are becoming more flexible and lowering the cost of the deals as they decide not to bring their own streaming services to the small New Zealand market.

The CBS deal will provide TVNZ OnDemand, and its free-to-air channels, with plenty of proven product, including the CSI and NCIS franchises as well as the hit daytime programme, the Drew Barrymore Show. Importantly, with the NBC deal, it will also provide a back catalogue of US movies.

TVNZ’s aggressive approach will be prompting some concerned conversations among Sky’s management team.. SKY also has a Viacom CBS deal but obviously chose not to pick up many of the shows on offer. And, if they watched TVNZ’s virtual programme launch they would have heard CEO Kevin Kenrick’s confident prediction that TVNZ’s digital platform would become New Zealand’s leading content aggregator – a position that Sky boss Sophie Moloney claimed was a big part of the pay TV operator’s future strategy, just a few months ago.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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