Many of New Zealand’s biggest and most expensive TV shows have vanished from air with no way for us to watch them. The solution is here — why won’t anyone fund it?
Will Hall remembers the moment he scored his first TV role clearly. In the early 2000s, the Christchurch-born actor moved to Australia in a bid to launch his career. But on a quick trip home Hall found himself bundled into the back of a mate’s mail plane, heading up to Auckland to audition for what would become his breakout role.
A casting agent had seen a photo, heard he was only in the country for a few days, and demanded they meet. “It happened by accident,” says Hall, who was thrust in front of the agent to read for the lead in a big budget local drama show. “She said, ‘Get him in, get him in now, he’s only here for two days, I think he’s our guy.’”
This is the dream come true for someone fresh out of acting school. “Sometimes it happens, and it only rarely happens — everything lines up and you’re the right fit for a character.”
A few months later, Hall found himself sitting inside a car wash for two days, filming the opening episode of Insider’s Guide to Happiness, a 13-part series made by Gibson Group with $4,875,000 of funding from NZ on Air. In 2004, that amount placed it among the most expensive shows ever funded in New Zealand.
Dense scripts were based around an intriguing central theme: a car accident sparks a butterfly effect, sending eight 20-somethings onto different life paths that would eventually intertwine. Each character was on the hunt for happiness, and episodes posed questions: “Will the truth make you happy?” and “Do you deserve to be happy?”
“It sounds stupid now,” says Hall, who played the character of James, a foppish, happy-go-lucky chap from Whanganui. “I was stuck in this carwash. The spirit of a Tibetan monk was in this vase that got smashed on the road. It had to find somewhere to go, and it landed in me.”
Filmed in widescreen, with a filmic hue laid over the top, Insider’s Guide was Aotearoa’s answer to the prestige TV offerings coming out of America at the time, with cable networks like HBO scooping up viewers and winning Emmys with The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under.
It worked. Hall’s character became a fan favourite, a second season was commissioned, and the show dominated the 2005 New Zealand Screen Awards, winning seven awards, including best show, and best actor for Hall.
All that time, all those awards, all those memories, all that money. Right now, you can’t watch Insider’s Guide to Happiness, or its six-part sequel, Insider’s Guide to Love, anywhere.
The series isn’t available on any local streaming services, and it hasn’t been for a very long time. Go digging and you’ll find episode two on YouTube and episode six on NZ On Screen, a local website dedicated to preserving Aotearoa’s screen history. That’s it, all that’s available of two seasons that cost taxpayers nearly $8 million.
It isn’t the only local series to meet this fate. You can’t view many of the TV shows made in Aotearoa across the past two decades. Jackson’s Wharf ($3 million) isn’t available. Madeleine Sami’s super hit Super City ($2.5 million) can’t be streamed. Despite being available on TVNZ OnDemand until recently, all five seasons of Nothing Trivial ($20 million) have now disappeared. Most of the shows made by excellent local production house The Downlow Concept, including Hounds ($1.1 million) and Cover Band ($1.1 million) cannot be found.
If you can remember it, you probably can’t watch it: The Cult ($6.5 million) is gone, Dirty Laundry ($6.8 million) has disappeared, and the same fate has fallen to This is Not My Life ($6.8 million), Orange Roughies ($9 million), Harry ($3.5 million), The Strip ($14 million) and Street Legal ($13.5 million). You also can’t watch most of Shortland Street’s 30 seasons, with only the last six months worth of episodes available via TVNZ OnDemand. As celebrations for the show’s 30th anniversary erupt this week — including an entire week dedicated to it on The Spinoff — being unable to revisit the glory days of Lionel Skeggins and Gina Rossi-Dodds seems like a real shame.
Hall has a workaround, keeping a DVD copy of Insider’s Guide on his shelves at his Christchurch home. But even that doesn’t work right now. “My three-year-old … stuffed the PlayStation. He managed to stuff those Countdown Disney cards in it,” he laughs. Right now, the star of Insider’s Guide has no way to watch his own show.
What can be done about this? Someone has a crazy idea that might just work. But it’s going to cost money. A lot of money.
Over the past three years, a classic music documentary has been restored to its former glory. “It sat in the too hard basket for too long. It was time to take it out,” says Kathryn Quirk. The content director for NZ On Screen is talking about Give It A Whirl, the 2003 series covering the history of popular music in Aotearoa.
It’s taken that long because rights for 167 songs needed to be approved, a laborious project of time-stamping tracks then reaching out to songwriters for approval. None of that is cheap. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Quirk.
All six parts of Give It a Whirl are finally available for viewing again, nearly 20 years after the show first went to air. But that’s just one show, and those delays and dollar signs are just some of the difficulties facing NZ On Screen. It’s not a streaming service; it’s a website built to showcase of New Zealand’s screen industry. Funding issues mean it runs on “the smell of an oil rag” with just three full-time staff, and a handful of part-timers. It also runs the music nostalgia website Audioculture.
Quirk details other issues, like problems accessing rights to TVNZ shows, and production companies refusing to offer up their titles for streaming. In most cases, it works like this: networks commission shows, producers make them, then the networks have exclusive broadcast and streaming rights for a set number of years, often up to three. After that, if they want to keep streaming them, they have to pay more. Residual payments to actors may also be applicable, depending on contracts.
NZ on Screen steps in hoping to scoop up shows streaming services no longer want. It’s a flawed plan. “It relies on whoever owns it … to be willing to give it to us for nothing,” says Quirk about acquiring content. “Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.” Producers hold onto shows in case a streaming service wants to pay them for it. “If they’re going to be able to earn revenue off it … they’re sure as hell not going to give it to us for free.”
Despite all of this, Quirk says NZ on Screen is thriving. More than a million people use the site every year, she claims, and it’s dedicating more time to acquiring full seasons, recently adding travel shows Intrepid Journeys and Ice to its library. People seek these shows out. The site’s numbers, she says, prove viewers want to see local content. “We don’t have an app, we don’t have the money, we’re so leanly funded,” she says, “but they’re great numbers.”
There is another option to grow. “The other thing we could potentially do … is expand into a pay model. The content owners would enjoy a share of revenue,” says Quirk. “Those talks are in progress.” Could this be the way forward, the solution for the avalanche of missing Aotearoa TV content?
Andrew Szusterman doesn’t think so. The managing director of South Pacific Pictures says producers need to get as much bang for their buck from their content as possible. (Recently, SPP sold streaming rights for The Almighty Johnsons and Step Dave to Neon.) He doesn’t believe demand for older shows is there, and says costly restoration projects are prohibitive. “Watching those shows on [high definition TV] sets and computers is just not an enjoyable experience visually and making quick conversions to stretch the content is just ugly,” he says.
He also doesn’t believe a taxpayer-funded platform “where content sits in perpetuity” is a good business model. “It really comes down to the strategy of the operators … about what they believe library New Zealand content will do for their services.” By that, he means an expensive restoration project on Insider’s Guide isn’t worth the money given how many people are likely to actually watch it.
NZ On Air’s head of funding Amie Mills also has similar doubts, questioning whether producers would support it. Music licensing, she points out, is “astronomically expensive”. NZ On Screen is the logical solution, yet “they’re not resourced or set up to do that”. Most of its funding comes from NZ on Air.
She wonders if TVNZ On Demand and Three Now’s platforms could be utilised further. “Is there audience desire or need for it?” she asks, warning, “It will come at a cost.” Despite Mills’ concerns, she can think of plenty of shows she’d like to view a second time, but isn’t able to. “I’d love to watch Harry again,” she says of Oscar Kightley’s hard-boiled police drama from 2013.
Quirk believes the time is right, suggesting audiences are mature enough to celebrate New Zealand’s televisual past — including its failures. Melody Rules was widely considered a disaster when it aired, but when a RNZ podcast examined its disastrous fallout, many wanted to revisit it. When Celebrity Treasure Island was revived last year by TVNZ, some were keen to relive the low budget first season from 2001 which had John ‘Cocksy’ Cocks and Dominic Bowden swimming through muddy ponds and digging up beaches for laughs. Just one episode of each is available for viewing through NZ On Screen.
In the meantime, Quirk’s been watching Hollywood rifling through its history books to find new ideas, like The Sopranos getting a Tony Soprano origin film, a prequel for The Wire called We Own This City, and a Six Feet Under reboot coming soon. She believes the same thing could happen to old shows here, but only if they’re available to stream.
“We’re so aware of it, we’re doing everything we can to make the shift,” she says. Money is the biggest problem, but buy-in from the industry is also crucial. “It’s not insurmountable. We’re well-positioned with the way our site’s built … we really hope we can.”
If it happened, Hall would no longer need to fix his PlayStation to watch Insider’s Guide again. While he’s proud of the work he did on season one, he’s less happy about his performance in season two. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admits. But, warts and all, even he believes the series should be available for viewing. “I’m so proud of it,” he says. “I’d be happy to see it again.”