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A loaded question: A behind-the-scenes look at the ambitious What Next?

A basketball court doesn’t seem like the typical location to ponder what New Zealand will look like in 20-years time, but when Ruckus and TVNZ came together to find that out, it served to be the perfect base for the scale of the production. Over the last four nights, What Next? has been posing challenging questions to New Zealanders. We chat to executive producer Arwen O’Connor and director Mitchell Hawkes about bringing the ambitious task to life.

By Erin McKenzie | June 16, 2017 | news

Ruckus founders Mitchell Hawkes, Arwen O'Connor and Nigel Latta

Talk to Ruckus’ Arwen O’Connor and Mitchell Hawkes this week, the executive producer and director respectively, and prepare to have strange sounds in the background and interruptions from set crew as the beast that is What Next? needs constant feeding.

Both admitted to being slightly sleep deprived and running on adrenaline, and it’s no surprise as the five nights the programme's been on air marks the end of a six-month journey for them.

What Next? is unlike any other programme local screens have seen, with hosts John Campbell and Nigel Latta posing questions to the audience to answer online before the responses and social media discussions are shared on air in real time. It’s a real advancement on the feedback viewers send into current affairs programmes and the classic 20-cent text used to vote for a contestant on programmes like New Zealand Idol.

The futuristic format of the programme is matched by the topic of conversation, which revolves around the country’s future and what New Zealanders believe the country will look like in 2037. To gauge that, the questions asked include: Would you share a tool shed with your neighbours? Would you take a lower wage if you get a share of the profits? Can you personally help fight climate change? Could a robot do your job better than you?

Ultimately, it’s wanting to know if New Zealanders are pro Plan A or Plan B for the future—Plan A being a continuation of the way we’re heading and Plan B being open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

Having worked on documentary series like The Hard Stuff with Nigel Latta and most recently Mind Over Money with Nigel Latta, the Ruckus team is no stranger to delving deep into potentially confronting topics and mining for thought provoking gold to deliver to air.

This latest project all started when a team from TVNZ approached Ruckus with an idea to make a big, immersive, interactive platform programme about the future. That turned into brainstorming, research, development and lots of iterations of what they thought the programme could be. It took one month alone to write the 50-page proposal for NZ On Air.

Aside from establishing the technicalities of creating an interactive and responsive live production, the Ruckus team knew it didn’t want to use the programme to say what the future should be. Instead, Hawkes says it’s all about starting a conversation and letting New Zealanders shape it for themselves.

“We’re not saying do this or do that, we’re saying here’s a whole lot of ideas or maybe you want to stay the way that you are.”

Another concern they had was trying to avoid people breaking down into their political camps, so the questions were formed to bring out opinions based on personal feelings rather than numbers and facts.

As an example of what he hopes What Next? will achieve, Hawkes recalls the discussion surrounding Kiwi Saver a few years back. People were confronted by it at first, he says, "but it burrowed and burrowed its way into the public’s conscious and today, pretty much everyone has Kiwi Saver".

“We’re hoping a show like this will be the beginning and it will keep on going and we know that we have to talk about the future.”

One of the ways Ruckus gauged what New Zealanders were thinking about and formed the basis of its conversation was the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study by University of Auckland professor Chris Sibley.

It’s a 20-year longitudinal national probability study of social attitudes, personality and health outcomes that Hawkes says asked those partisan questions What Next? doesn’t want to do. For example, the study asked New Zealanders if they believe in climate change, and What Next? is asking New Zealanders if they think they can do anything about it.

And with Auckland University's values lining up with the purpose of What Next?, it's since come on board as a partner of the programme.

Generating a response

While it already had an understanding of what New Zealanders were thinking about, the purpose of What Next? is to find out what they wanted to do about it, and that wasn’t going to happen without questions being answered. And being a new programme and format, it had an extra hurdle to overcome.

To rope audiences in, O’Connor says it released four controversial and provocative questions relating to each of the four topics covered in the programme—technology, environment, economy and lifestyles.

And fitting to the programme’s futuristic format, the questions were filmed in a 360-video shot by TVNZ Blacksand before being shared on Facebook.

Across the first four episodes, there's been an average total audience of 254,000 people who've generated 180,000 responses. And after it's been on air, the after show—a live stream on Facebook called Futurist Think Tank—continues to attract large numbers of viewers, typically 9000 people. 

“The social engagement is growing and the discussion is getting more and more passionate, people are really getting on there and discussing the issue rather than reviewing the show, it’s a true discussion about the ideas we’re bringing up,” says O'Connor.

There’s also been plenty of stories of individuals who’ve already responded to the information shared on What Next? with one parent writing in to say her child has changed what they were going to study and another person reporting his workplace is going to open itself up on the weekends to help children learn to code.

While pushing the audience to make New Zealand’s future and think about what they can do personally front of mind, it’s also pushed the boundaries in terms of the technology being used in the production, having transformed an Auckland basketball court into a high-tech studio.

The technology within it has required the creator to fly in from Croatia and a team of perceptions engineers to be brought in, but it’s all been worth it to see the graphs of real-time responses float in mid-air alongside Campbell and massive screens set on tables and standing like walls.

Hawkes thinks of What Next? as 1.0 because every night it’s improving itself and bringing together more of the resources.

“The show over the nights has got bigger and better and using more of the resources that we’ve got, and I’ve found that quite liberating that you can grow something and think of things as 1.0 and I think a second series would be 2.0,” he says.

While a lot of the technical work remains behind the camera, presenters Campbell and Latta are front and centre, leading the conversation.

With Latta one of Ruckus’ founders, the programme was pitched for him and the hunt began to find the right partner to join him. Both Hawkes and O’Connor praise Campbell for his knowledge and background, which made him perfect for the role.

They compare the two to Batman and Superman, saying they’re great on their own and each has an audience, but bring that all together and it makes it makes something really important for audiences.

“We stand by those two as a great partnership and a dynamic partnership who each brings something really strong and solid and special to the show,” says O’Connor.

She adds it’s made extra special by this being Campbell’s first time back on a major TV network since Campbell Live was cut in 2015, as well as being his first time on TVNZ and appearance alongside Latta.

What next for What Next?

After six months of brainstorming, research and production, O’Connor hopes the team's efforts will continue to resonate with New Zealanders long after the programme airs and she says the information collected now belongs to them.

“Big change happens with people so it’s over to people individually and collectively to decide what to do next.”

But that won’t be the end for Ruckus and TVNZ as they’ll take the data and break it down to see what resonates with people and what works for them. From there, there's a range of options it could be used for, including the possibility of special programmes.

O'Connor and Hawkes say What Next? was so ambitious but now that they've done it, there's a great foundation to work on and improve.

After all, Hawkes did say this was only 1.0.

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