Michael Stedman is the managing director of Natural History New Zealand, a Dunedin-based producer of factual programmes which has won more than 400 international awards and works with the BBC, PBS, Japan's NHK and many other leading broadcasters. It has its roots in TVNZ's Natural History Unit, which was deemed a "non-core business" and sold to Fox International Channels in 1997.
Michael was asked to give this year's John O'Shea Memorial Address, which traditionally opens the annual conference of Spada, the Screen Production and Development Association. The following is the notes for that speech.
MICHAEL STEDMAN : JOHN O’SHEA MEMORIAL ADDRESS
AUCKLAND, 10 NOVEMBER 2011
Before I begin I would like very belatedly, to thank SPADA for the award, presented to me last year.
Being asked to deliver the John O’Shea lecture / speech is an honour and carries with it an expectation that I will say something interesting. This is where I have a problem. I much prefer being behind the curtain getting on with what I know best, production. For me, delivering this is a little like being a rabbit in the headlights.
It will come as no surprise to most of you that I have chosen to take this opportunity to share my views on public broadcasting and its threatened demise.
In the current debate few have bothered to try and define what we mean when we talk about Public Service Broadcasting.
For me public broadcasting is about choice, about diversity, about depth, about substance, it speaks to our innate curiosity, it celebrates our creative achievements, it inspires, and it is a place of endless possibilities.
Years ago I was told by a programmer at TVNZ that people didn’t like documentaries because they had to think. No one told Discovery, an empire that has been built on the belief that people are intelligent information seekers.
Mine is a view from the deep South. I am non-aligned - an observer who for the most part has avoided the politics of Wellington and Auckland, preferring to keep my head down and just get on with it.
My only foray North was as part of the government task force into the screen industry followed by a place on the ill-fated Screen Council.
For those of you who have little or no idea who we are and what we do, here’s a snapshot of our history.
NHNZ began life as the TVNZ Natural History Unit and has existed in one form or another for close to 35 years.
The major change for the Unit occurred when TVNZ became an SOE and was required to deliver a dividend to Government.
You didn’t need much of a brain to realize that the major area of discretionary spending was production and in my view it was in production therefore that the monetary cuts would fall.
With the support of the then CEO Julian Mounter I began exploring the international market. He believed that there were areas in NZ production which could find overseas markets.
We took small steps into a very large and scary world. I’ve often described it as akin to selling vacuum cleaners, the more doors you knock on the more you sell.
We began to augment our income with sales and coproduction. We had begun to develop a reputation among channels like Discovery and National Geographic. It all looked promising until there was a change of Chairman.
Like so many members of TVNZ boards, the new Chairman knew nothing about television, had no vision, wanted instant results and only measured success by an increased dividend to Government.
Under that scenario we had two choices: contract and close, or escape the clutches of a hostile owner.
We proposed a sale. The potential dollars from a sale made this proposal an immediately attractive proposition to the Board of TVNZ.
TVNZ put an obscene amount of money in their pocket and we were flicked on to Fox.
NHNZ built its foundation on three words:
VISION - Ours was to become a world leader.
BELIEF - I had absolute belief in the talent in this country.
ADAPTABILITY - You adapt or die. Many of our competitors failed to adapt to a rapidly changing television landscape and are now extinct.
We began in the American market. Having established a set of relationships, we then moved into Europe and finally into Asia.
So where are we 12 years on?
- We sell to 180 countries
- We have won over 400 international awards
- We co-produce with Channels around the world: In the US alone we co-produce with Discovery, Animal Planet, the Science Channel, National Geographic, Smithsonian, the Bio Channel and PBS. In Europe and Asia we have an equally strong presence.
- We own production companies in Singapore and South Africa
- We have a production base in China, and are the largest Western producer of documentaries about China in the world.
- We have a development office in Washington DC.
- Out of our Dunedin base we produce around 60 documentaries a year with budgets ranging from the low end $300k to the upper end of $1.2 million.
- The NHNZ group produces around 200 hours a year.
- We are a world leader in 3D production. Last year we produced 20 hours and we are in pre production on further 3D documentaries.
- Our new facility is state of the art and there are those they have said it is best in the country.
All of this growth has been fuelled on the back of great documentaries. Our only involvement with FIC is to discuss the size of our profit!!
So why is this relevant to you?
It’s simple. We were born out of a public broadcasting system as were many of the internationally successful NZ companies.
The fact we were sold by TVNZ and have gone on to grow and succeed illustrates the lack of understanding successive Boards of TVNZ have had and continue to have about the industry they’re charged with overseeing. The success of NHNZ also illustrates that there can be major economic value to NZ from the values at the heart of public service broadcasting.
We have carried with us these values and a commitment to storytelling excellence that were all part of growing up within a public service broadcaster.
Our mantra since day one has been profit through excellence.
Ironically, whilst owned by Fox International Channels we co-produce with a substantial number of public service broadcasters around the world. PBS, ZDF, France Television, RAI, NHK, CCTV.
For example we are the largest co-producer in the world with NHK of Japan. NHK has a 6 billion dollar annual income.
I have been part of this industry for all of my working life. I began as a film editor and it is production that has always driven me. It is at the heart of what I do.
If my career was a film then the closing credits are not far off.
I have been part of an industry that has been the victim of on-going political manipulation, arrogance, ignorance and never ending change. It is an industry of immense uncertainty.
I remember well visiting an MP to express my deep concern at what was happening to public broadcasting and my concern at its apparent demise. In my view we were facing the end of civilization as we knew it!!
That was in 1973 and the same debate is still going on.
Successive Ministers of Broadcasting from both sides of the House have, over a very long period, implemented change, all of them in the belief that they knew better.
In turn they have appointed compliant Boards who, with some exceptions, have understood little about the television industry but have had the power to wreak havoc.
That the industry has survived and has continued to grow creatively is a testament to the remarkable people who are the industry.
I was part of TVNZ. In fact I was the first Director of Production, following the deregulation and the setting up of TVNZ as an SOE.
So I understand well the crushing and debilitating impact of changes of direction by successive Governments and Boards - changes that have resonated through the entire industry, changes that created uncertainty, changes that impeded growth, changes that have seen New Zealand audiences denied programming that truly reflects and enriches this remarkable country.
What astounds me are the people below the 7th floor in TVNZ who for years in the face of constant change have managed to continue running TVNZ. I certainly could not have survived in that environment.
The decision to end TVNZ 7 by both government and TVNZ clearly signals the end to any cultural imperatives. The unease of a dual remit has been resolved. TVNZ’s only bottom line appears now to be the delivery of a dividend.
If anyone doubts that, I invite them to read TVNZ’s latest statement of corporate intent. A chill ran down my spine. It is a thinly veiled grab for as much public money as possible.
In fact it’s not thinly veiled. It’s a very direct grab for an increased share of NZOA money in order to bolster its commercially driven imperative.
QUOTE from TVNZ’s Statement of Corporate Intent.
Increase TVNZ’s share of NZ On Air funding
TVNZ will continue to commission and produce commercially-viable local programming and we will continue to participate in the NZOA contestable funding to support this aim.
However, we face two challenges. Firstly, we need to increase our share of overall funding. In doing so, we need to direct more of our efforts towards securing funds for commercially-attractive, peak programming. Secondly, we need to engage NZOA to broaden the availability of funding for commercially-attractive genres.
Genres that demonstrate the greatest commercial potential are drama, comedy, entertainment and popular factual, yet only about 50% of NZOA’s total awards support peak programming across these categories.
It is a disturbing that NZOA money is being targeted for what are clearly commercial aspirations.
One has to wonder why?
Is it because TVNZ is financially in need of support in order to achieve something close to a respectable bottom line?
Or is it, and more worryingly because of the elephant in the room, an elephant that uncontrolled is distorting and dramatically changing the New Zealand television landscape.
Unlike most developed countries we lack regulatory controls, controls which provide checks and balances and bring with them responsibilities.
The elephant is of course SKY whose influence in this market is immense and largely unseen.
SKY has the scale to outbid and out muscle any of the other players when it comes to the very fabric of television, the buying of programme rights.
This has been graphically illustrated over the years with most major sports now behind the curtain of pay television.
It has the ability to force prices of programming up to a point where they are simply out of reach for free to air broadcasters or free to air broadcasters are forced to pay increasingly higher prices in order to maintain the status quo.
This of course will have a negative impact of the money available for local production.
There is virtually no contribution by SKY to local production unless funded by NZOA for screening on Prime.
Under the previous Government TVNZ and TV3 argued for a review of the media landscape. It didn’t happen.
Ironically Julian Mounter as CEO of TVNZ saw the future; TVNZ acquired a major shareholding in SKY as a means of ensuring that free to air maintained influence in the emerging media landscape.
With a change of TVNZ chairman that shareholding was sold down and the rest is history.
SKY has a long term vision. By contrast TVNZ’s vision changes every three or so years and is driven, as I said earlier, by a Board with little or no understanding of the industry.
Some thoughts on the latest fiasco in which the industry finds itself embroiled: the renewed debate on public broadcasting, the result of the abandonment of TVNZ 7.
The previous Government gave us the Charter in some half-hearted attempt to preserve public broadcasting.
There are those who lament the passing of the Charter as though it was something of value, believing that we will be all the poorer because of its demise.
From my perspective the Charter was appallingly drafted, never implemented and didn’t make one iota of difference. It was yet another step in a long line of political tinkering, another chapter of ill-conceived change.
This same Government also funded NZ TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 but with funding for only five years. If they had been serious about the importance of public broadcasting this funding would have been for at least 15 years.
It could be described as a self-serving and insincere political ploy, another case of tinkering.
But at least it was an attempt, an acknowledgement that public service broadcasting had a role.
Under the present Government and Minister of Broadcasting there is no such acknowledgement
The current Minister appears to be of the view that all citizens’ needs can be met by commercial broadcasting including SKY and that the market should rule. Well I’m sorry Minister, that’s unacceptable. You are the Minister of Broadcasting in all its forms and that brings with it the responsibility to ensure that there is more on offer free to air than the completely commercial and advertising driven programming that is commercial television.
The assumption that all needs can be met by a commercial market also begs an important question.
Is the television market driven, responding to what people want or does television create and control the market?
Where does our public responsibility lie?
If the best choice we can offer the viewer from our current line-up of advertiser friendly programming relates to which dog show they like best or which cooking show or which American crime show, then we put our audience in cultural jeopardy.
Have we grown a market which believes that offering different flavours of candy floss is real choice?
New Zealanders deserve, and have a fundamental right to a great deal more choice.
The current indifference is destroying the last remnant of diversity in broadcasting through sheer neglect.
The Government has funded NZOA broadly speaking to fund programmes which don’t have a commercial imperative, but speak to our identity and reflect our richness and diversity.
This is all well and good. The only problem is that the trump card is held by the broadcasters: unless they agree to screen a programme, it doesn’t get made.
Even if the programme is funded by NZOA it must perform on air. Since all the broadcasters are rating driven, it’s a very delicate dance and one that is controlled by the broadcasters.
When NZOA was established there were two players: TVNZ and TV3. Since then the demand for funding from NZOA has continued to grow - Prime, Stratos, the regional channels… The pie, as it is all over the world, is being cut into increasingly smaller slices.
The size of the domestic market has led many NZ production companies to look overseas for growth opportunities to augment the shrinking pie and their success has been astonishing.
SPP, The Gibson Group, Touchdown, Green Stone, Pukeko Films and NHNZ to name but a few have all made significant inroads into the international market and this in turn has fuelled growth domestically.
In my view these inroads must continue if the industry is to expand.
What the Government doesn’t seem to understand is the economic benefits that have grown from public service broadcasting, creating an environment which has provided a seeding ground for ideas and people many of whom have become major export earners.
Despite the growth internationally, domestically the industry remains unchanged, working within and debating the same models and issues it has debated for many years. Are we stuck in a time warp tinkering around the edges of an industry that is radically changing?
Are we all hoping in vain that the Government and the State Broadcaster will one day miraculously change and embrace, at least in part, some of the aspirations we all have for the achievable elements of public broadcasting?
The current statement of corporate intent would suggest not and if recent history is considered then the likelihood looks even more remote.
The ever increasing relationship with SKY is concerning. I would have thought the growth and strengthening of Freeview would have been a priority for the State Broadcaster given the imminent switch over.
Are we, as owners of the State Broadcaster and as citizens going to find ourselves unable to access programming unless we pay?
The demise of TVNZ 7 has been placed at the feet of government, but what about TVNZ’s role and responsibility in this demise?
TVNZ had years to make it work, to find ways of sustaining the Channel. They have, not surprisingly, failed.
The cynical part me wonders whether or not TVNZ wanted the Channel to succeed at all. After all TVNZ 7 had the potential to cannibalise part of TV ONE’s audience. Why would you want an in-house, non-revenue generating competitor?
If, as an organisation, TVNZ does not attempt to meet any of the expectations of a public broadcaster and if its only goal is profit, with the entire programming schedule built around that goal, then this surely must to lead to the question of TVNZ ownership.
There is certainly no argument for retention based on its current return on investment.
Is it time to sell TVNZ and allow it pursue unencumbered the commercial path it has chosen?
So where would that leave NZ in terms of public service broadcasting? Probably in the same place as it is now!
One of the drivers behind the success of NHNZ is our ability to constantly adapt to a world that is constantly changing, a world in which the only certainty is uncertainty.
Many of our competitors internationally have failed to adapt. The price has been extinction!
So if the notion of public broadcasting in NZ is to avoid extinction, do we not need to adapt and look forward with new models, new ways of preserving and celebrating our identity?
If we truly value the notion of TVNZ 7 or an equivalent, do we not need to start building a sustainable strategy, a strategy that convinces the Government, in particular Treasury, that public service television has not only a cultural imperative but also a long term economic one?
Public service television is a lot more than television for a few pointy heads.
It is a space of innovation, of risk; a place where young programme makers can take their first steps; a space where concepts can be developed free of the restraints of advertising agencies’ demand for ratings; a place where we can showcase our talent and our diversity; a space where the staggering number of incredible programmes currently made by first time films makers can be seen by other New Zealanders.
For example, for 10 years NHNZ has partnered the University of Otago in offering a Science and Natural History Film Making Masters level degree course. Every year the course produces 10 commercial half hour documentaries which have won over 40 newcomer awards. They are screened internationally but not in NZ and in my view that is appalling.
Importantly public service television is also a space where the news service is more than the current tabloid fare, where current affairs, debate and ideas once again have voice.
We need to adapt and we need to find a single voice; a voice that can argue for both the cultural and economic benefits of public broadcasting; a voice that can present well thought through and achievable alternatives within the reality of the money available.
In my view part of the reason we don’t have a strong and vibrant voice advocating on behalf of public broadcasting comes back to the industry itself, the industry of which I am a part.
For years the industry has failed to speak with a single voice and therefore has sent mixed messages to Governments.
We have SPADA, the Directors’ Guild, the Writers’ Guild, the Techo’s Guild, Actors’ Equity and on it goes, all driven by varying degrees of self-interest, each sending their own message to Government, along with messages from various academics, media commentators and a myriad of other experts.
There is nothing approaching a consensus and in the vacuum created nothing changes.
In fact spirals down.
Nothing concrete has been advocated by the wider industry. There are no strong arguments about the long term value, both social and industrial, of having an effective public broadcasting component to our media landscape.
There is no data on the levels of support that may be available. For example NHNZ makes around 60 documentaries a year. In almost all cases we hold NZ rights, on some occasions 2nd window. All of these programmes could be available for screening in NZ and no, it’s not about money. We already supply programming free of charge to some of the regional television stations.
This industry desperately needs a strong and cohesive voice, a voice that can’t be ignored by Government.
Recently the industry has begun a dialogue under the banner of SINZ, a name which sounds confusing and I have to say a bit lame.
Why not take the high ground and call yourselves the NZ Screen Council?
There is no question in my mind that the NZ industry is truly talented and punches well above its weight. I am constantly staggered at what is produced in this country and in our international success.
Working together this industry has achieved a great deal both domestically and internationally. Team work is in our DNA.
It is after all, at the heart of every great production.
Why then are we unable to work together on a strategy that is so important to our media landscape, to our audience, to our identity and to our future?
This conference could well be a defining moment in our broadcasting history.
There are people at this conference who have ideas, good ideas, about how the industry can re shape the public vote in order to ensure public broadcasting survives.
At the heart of television are creative and innovative ideas, ideas that are given life by the production industry. This industry must use this gift for creativity and innovation to unite in the common goal of preserving public service broadcasting.
Unless those ideas are given a voice, debated and shaped into a path forward then there is no doubt the government and TVNZ will simply fade public broadcasting to black.
Governments come and go.
Broadcasting Ministers come and go.
Boards of TVNZ come and go.
CEOs of TVNZ come and go.
But we remain.
For us it’s a lifetime commitment.