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A New Zealand Original: Streaming services embrace in-house content

As online streaming services slowly replace broadcast television as the preferred way to watch TV, the ways in which content is developed are also changing. Streaming services are boasting ‘original’ content, with the banner, ‘Netflix Original’, becoming synonymous with edgy or ground-breaking content, created free from the bounds of traditional broadcast media. Now, slowly but surely, Lightbox is getting in the game.

By Caitlin Salter | September 19, 2018 | features

No matter which way you look at it, the evidence of online streaming services taking over the television industry is everywhere. Just five years after Netflix scored its first-ever Emmy nomination for an original series, the global streaming platform scored 112 nominations at the 2018 awards. The giant leap marked the end of a 17-year streak held by American pay television service HBO, which less than two decades previously represented an earlier television shift when it overtook commercial television broadcaster NBC’s stronghold on the awards.

This year’s awards ended in a tie, with both HBO and Netflix taking home 23 awards, but it is a milestone none the less. ‘Netflix Original’ content is hugely popular, and a massive money spinner for the platform. And Netflix is not alone. Over on Amazon Prime, ‘Prime Originals’ are cited by the company to be one of the biggest draw-cards to the platform, with one in four Prime sign-ups being driven by ‘Prime Originals’ between late 2014 and early 2017.

With 26 million customers in the US alone, platforms like Amazon Prime have plenty of money to invest into programming, with Reuters reporting that the company spent $5 billion for original and licenced films and TV shows in 2017.

Closer to home, Lightbox is only just getting started. And with 350,000 subscribers, the streaming service is working on a significantly smaller playing field, but it’s no less committed to quality content.

Back in February, Lightbox expanded its commitment to local content by investing directly into local productions. The first two ‘Lightbox Originals’ landed on the platform shortly afterwards, with High Road and children’s show Nori Roller Coaster Boy launching in March.

Last week, it was announced a third ‘Lightbox Original’ would be joining the ranks, with longtime partners The Spinoff and Lightbox launching Get It To Te Papa in October this year. For Lightbox, original content is a way to engage it’s uniquely New Zealand audience, but the streaming service has also made a conscious decision to keep the ‘Lightbox Original’ brand simple.

All Netflix users will be familiar with the ‘Netflix Original’ stamp that graces a huge number of TV shows, films and specials on the platform, but the term actually covers a huge range of different content models.

The first ‘Netflix Original’, House of Cards, launched back in February 2013 as a show funded and owned by Netflix, and was initially only available on Netflix. At the time, Netflix wasn’t yet available in a number of countries, including New Zealand, so House of Cards was sold to local networks for distribution.

These days, Netflix does commission and fund a huge amount of original content, including TV shows like Love, Santa Clarita Diet and Dear White People, but ‘Netflix Originals’ has expanded to include shows that have been sold to Netflix after they were created – shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Masters of None carrying the ‘Netflix Originals’ brand despite being exclusive to the platform, rather than original.

Hema Patel

Lightbox general manager Hema Patel says the New Zealand streaming service made the decision years ago to keep any ‘Lightbox Original’ content on a much more simple model.

“When we first launched, we noticed that Netflix was using the ‘Netflix Original’ brand on the platform for shows they hadn’t actually produced. We made the decision not to do the same. All ‘Lightbox Originals’ will be fully or partially commissioned by Lightbox and we’ve usually put some sort of financial contribution to the show.”

This was a quick U-turn from back in 2015 when Lightbox claimed its exclusive rights to popular drama Better Call Saul as a ‘Lightbox Original’.

Get It To Te Papa was commissioned by Lightbox after The Spinoff approached the streaming service about 18 months ago. The new show, which launches on 16 October, hunts down unconventional 'treasures' from New Zealand's past that should be recognised by our national museum. Get It To Te Papa will explore six artefacts: the 'Lets Gone Warriors' sign; a piece of Suzanne Paul's memorabilia' Auckland's Giant Santa; the Huntly Deka sign; the Big Fresh Animatronic Fruit and Veges; and the infamous Waitangi/Steven Joyce dildo. 

Patel says that while the new show is quite different to other content on the platform, it also fits well.

“It’s quite left field for us because it’s in a mockumentary style. But it could also turn into an iconic piece of television for New Zealand. Get it to Te Papa is just New Zealanders being New Zealanders talking about New Zealand things.”

She says it's too soon to predict how Lightbox's relationship with the show will change after the first season, and some tough decisions will need to be made.

"I'm sure the show will continue [into a second season], but we're just figuring out how we can be involved in it. We're in the really hard place of deciding whether we can afford to do it again. We want to be part of it but it's up in the air."

Lightbox is also producing a second season of High Road to be released later this year. The show, which stars Outrageous Fortune’s Mark Mitchinson, was originally a web series and was produced into eight 30-minute episodes for Lightbox by production company Tomorrowland.

Animated children’s series Nori Roller Coaster Boy was co-produced by POW Studios in Wellington and Xrisp Media in South Korea. Patel says the reception to both shows has been positive.

The biggest limitation for creating Lightbox Originals is funding. NZ on Air’s funding strategy stipulates the fund will invest only in public media. As a paid-for service, this cuts Lightbox out of the running, despite the platform wanting to create New Zealand shows with local talent.

“One of the things we’ve struggled with is that we can’t access NZ on Air funding, even though we have a big audience. Local content is really important to us and when we realised the NZ on Air door was closed, we tried to understand how else we might bring our content to audiences.”

According to the latest Where Are The Audiences? Report produced by Glasshouse Consulting for NZ on Air, the way New Zealanders consume media is continuing to change. While traditional broadcast media continues to deliver the biggest audiences, with 82 percent of New Zealanders tuning into linear TV each week, SVODs showed the biggest growth. Total (net) SVOD is up to 62 percent, from 35 percent of New Zealanders using SVODs on a weekly basis in 2016.

NZ on Air spokeswoman Allanah Kalafatelis says the funding agency’s policy in this area is that content must be free to New Zealanders at various, particularly early points in its lifecycle.

“Content behind a paywall as the primary and only platform is ineligible for funding, but we will consider strong multi-platform proposals from producers that include a satisfactory free-access outcome – supported by an SVOD that provides good audience data and significant co-investment.”

In the meantime, Lightbox is continuing to honour its commitment to putting local faces on New Zealand’s screens by opening itself up to be pitched to. Lightbox hosted some local producers last year, and showcased what Lightbox can offer and the kind of audience the streaming service has.

“Local producers have realised they have someone else they can pitch their ideas to. We don’t want to open the floodgates just yet, but there’s a lot of interest and we have to make some tough decisions about which ones we can and can’t fund.

“Lightbox is a New Zealand business and if we can’t get into our own TV product with New Zealand content, then what’s the point? Local content adds to our New Zealand-ness and people love that. They want to see themselves on screen,” Patel says.

Earlier this year, New Zealand picked up its first original series for Netflix with David Farrier’s Dark Tourist. The 'Netflix Original' docu-series's status for a second season is currently pending. But Dark Tourist is the only New Zealand television series on Netflix, and there are only five New Zealand-made films on the platform – including Farrier’s documentary, Tickled.

On the other hand, Lightbox’s New Zealand television section boosts are a large number of local favourites, including Outrageous Fortune, Westside, Top of the Lake, Go Girls and Bro Town. The local platform made its commitment to sharing New Zealand content to New Zealanders clear nearly four years ago when it first added 19 local shows to its catalogue.

Lightbox is uniquely placed to be the platform that produces New Zealand content as it is a New Zealand-owned and operated streaming service. However, the reality is the cost benefit of buying internationally-made content is generally higher.

“I’d love to put more New Zealand faces on the screen, but at the moment it costs up to 10 times more to produce a local show than it does to buy a programme from overseas,” Patel says.

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