Horse’s Mouth: Andrew Shaw

Andrew Shaw, general manager of acquisitions, production and commissioning at TVNZ, was his usual ebullient (and controversial) self during his speech at the TVNZ new season launch (“Last time I looked we were in show business. We’re the show. You’re the business”). We had a chat with him before the event about the importance of quality, the so-called Golden Age of TV and taking risks.

On local content: “It’s easy to give it a one line description of local content, but it’s an awful lot harder to execute it to a standard that the audience expects. The beauty of original television is that if you get it right your audience rewards you with loyalty, regular viewing and engagement. Get it wrong and the opposite applies. We are blessed to have a tremendous local production community who make really compelling New Zealand content, and across the widest possible genres. We’ve got tremendous children’s dramas that will be coming to the screen in the next year, adult drama, reality observation, documentary, entertainment, one-off films and the like. There are fewer companies than there were but the 80/20 rule applies in any industry. And the companies that have configured themselves so they’ve got resources for development, vertical integration overseas, or have a strong sales history and are successfully exporting content, they’re doing well and it’s great to be in business with them.” 

On looking ahead: “We work across a three year horizon, so what we’ve got in production now is what we’ll bring to the screens 2014 or 2015, and you’re looking at 2017 for our early development. That requires you to make some guesses. You need to rely to a degree on what the market intelligence is telling you, what’s working here and abroad but also some intuitive decisions about what will connect with an audience in two years.”

On quality: “There’s a quote I borrowed from Disney: quality is your best business plan. You’ll have some hits, you’ll have some misses, but if that remains one of the cornerstone aspects of your philosophy, you’re going to have more hits than misses. Some people use quality in a Reithian model. I’m not talking about unwatchable BBC3 shows. I’m talking about well-made, well-written, well-cast drama; stories and characters that resonate with New Zealanders. In factual entertainment it’s journeys and characters that the audience admires and parts of our New Zealand lifestyle they find fascinating. In entertainment it’s gladiatorial, high stakes, empire-driven shows. You can like or dislike shows subjectively. You might like NZ’s Got Talent, you might not. But the thing is we made a quality production. So in everything you do the quality has to shine through—in different ways. That’s what drives us. There’s no doubt that Police Ten 7, in its unique way, is a quality production. It’s successful commercially, as an entertainment show, as an information programme and, oddly enough, it sends a very important social message to an audience that is actively watching the show week in week out.” 

On demographics: “I live and work in the cradle to grave concept. I believe young children deserve quality, young adults deserve quality and so do adults and mature adults. We can’t just slavishly live inside one commercial demographic and ignore the rest of the community … I think some are guilty of that. If you look at the business from an exclusively commercial point of view, and if you subscribe only to the psychographic and demographic rules of engagement, then anybody over 54 is unimportant. But they’re really important to me. Even though we now live in a time when there are so many devices, co-viewing is really important. Why do I think children’s shows need to be good? Because they’re often viewed by children and their parents. The relationship is with their family. And drama is important because it’s often a co-viewed activity.” 

On realities: “Demographics are a reality of our commercial measurement system and the advertising industry. But it’s no surprise the most watched TV network in the US is CBS and they market themselves absolutely as the most watched. They really talk about all people. And you need to be most-watched to be attractive to the most people. And we are still in a mass business. Though I look at the demographic results every day, I still look at 5+. I want to know how many New Zealanders found Shortland St, or NZ’s Got Talent or Nothing Trivial compelling.” 

On commerce: “We absolutely work closely with sales and marketing to understand whether shows are of a nature that will find themselves attractive to advertisers and sponsors. That’s grown and we’ve seen the development of that over the last three or four years. And we are getting better at it. I think both the sales people and the content side are learning much more about what the other wants and needs and advertisers are much more skilled directly and through their agencies in having that conversation. But it’s really important that you balance all of these needs and aspirations and still come out with something that makes people say ‘I really enjoyed watching that’, ‘I feel better informed for having seen that’, or ‘that story connected with me’. Because that’s what this business is about.” 

On the D word:I read this fabulous book called the Armchair Nation by Joe Moran and it’s all about the history of English television. It started in 1929 with a short broadcast from central Soho. It was a four minute piece and it featured a stand up comedian who was followed by a singer. My, how far we’ve come. People have been announcing the premature death of television since not long after it started. And television was going to be the death of cinema and theatre. But we’ve learned that the mass is still active. Despite the fact there are many new, rich ways to engage with media, people still like to come home after a hard day at work and want to work and relax. They want a range of things, of course, but sometimes they don’t want to actively pursue their media choices. So I think that the business of free-to-air TV is healthier than it’s been in a while.” 

On gold: “I’m on the content side of the equation. And for me if there’s a golden age it’s the golden age of content. Before you were either a movie guy or a TV guy. But you’re seeing them move seamlessly backwards and forwards because there’s no hard and fast rule about whether you can be in one or the other anymore. I was in France and I was looking at a police drama and I asked who the studio was and it was Amazon. Frankly, anybody with an interest in IP can be a studio or if they have an alliance they can be a distributor. The fences are all changing. They’re coming down and they’re going up all over the place, but the one great truth is what’s driving the success of these business, both traditional and non-traditional, is quality content. They don’t want to watch a device, they want to watch what’s upon it.” 

On social: “Television itself is a Greco Latin word that was converted to French and it means far-sighted. [Famous department store chap] Selfridge said ‘television is not a toy, it will collapse the distance between people around the world.’ And that’s what it does. So does social media. The electronic community is youthful. And we haven’t had it that long. But it allows you to communicate with people about what you’re seeing on TV, live or otherwise, and share your thoughts and opinions. It used to be that you’d simply shout from the other end of the kitchen. But these days they do it electronically. In that sense social media has been really helpful to the industry. Marketing and promotion are one thing, but the most important marketers of your show are the audience. If you have a show with an audience of 250,000 and they bother to talk with five people about what they’re watching, that’s how’s the snowballs happen. It can be dangerous. It’s totally unfiltered. It’s like the talkback radio of the internet age. And you shouldn’t make content decisions based solely on the unfiltered opinions of people who have a Twitter account. But you have to look at the sorts of conversations that take place in these social environments about shows and listen. These days we look at a show’s critical acclaim, total rating, demographic performance and social interaction, and the scorecard for shows is a combination of all these things.” 

On ratings: “My perspective is that there will have to be a lot of change in the measurement system in the next five years. If you think about what we now look at, whether it’s live, delayed, recorded or through various sites, there’s a great deal we don’t know about who and how they’re using media and those are questions the industry will have to ask. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a good mystery.” 

On multi-night: “In Australia it’s a big thing, They really are going for the doctor. Three four five night a week kind of stuff. Our perspective is we need to be doing a good job where it makes sense to do multi-night television. It is also important to have variety in the programmes you put on your screens. Multi-night gives you a loyal core audience buy you get a lot of people who aren’t into DIY or cooking, then they’re out. You’ve got to make sure you don’t go overboard … I’m old enough to remember when ABC was doing Who wants to be a Millionaire in America and one month it just stopped working. So if you’ve gone four or five nights a week and suddenly that’s not working and you have nothing else, then you have a problem. We have to balance the things we invest in. And we’ve got to have other programming so that we have alternatives. Not only alternatives when the competition is playing multi-night, but also alternatives if it doesn’t work.” 

On risk and intuition: “Television is cyclical. And if anything the trends are shorter these days than they used to be. What’s next? Wait and see. It’s a mystery. That’s why being in the business of trying to find, make and buy shows is fascinating. There’s great joy in this industry. When we bought Mrs Browns’ Boys, everybody had passed on it, but we all felt when we saw it that it had something and look at what happened. It’s the same with Miranda. Often it’s not the obvious opportunities that succeed. You only have to look at Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or The Sopranos when it came out. That was the one that changed drama most profoundly. Or the time we went with Go Girls, we hadn’t had a hit drama on New Zealand screens in five years, so you have go out on the plank and bounce up and down and take a risk. This is a risk business and you have to be prepared to live with that risk, otherwise you’re just living in the grey area in middle …  We’re bright enough to know that we have to learn lessons from overseas before we make those mistakes. And we’re fortunate we have strong relationships with other channels overseas and we share the intel. You can’t run this business in isolation. But there’s no one single model anymore. We have to accept we’re in a time of enormous change and keep trying things. So if you’re going to fail, fail fast.” 

On optimism: “I think we’re entering an age of some of the biggest opportunities and possibilities we’ve seen for a long time. The economy seems to be in a relatively good state, confidence is up and the market looks quite healthy; television is not declining, it seems to be as popular with audiences as it has been of late; and the local industry is giving us confidence with the work they’re doing. So there are more reasons to smile than there are to frown.”

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