Horse’s Mouth: John Kelly, TVNZ

Earlier this year, TVNZ centralised control of its programming across TV One, TV2 and Ondemand and appointed John Kelly to the newly created role of general manager of programming. Kelly, who first joined the broadcaster as an editor in 1995, shifted across to the programming 2006 and was shortly thereafter promoted to the position of head of programming for TV2. 

At the time of Kelly’s appointment to the general manager of programming role, TVNZ’s head of television Jeff Latch said: “As the market evolves, it’s critical we maximise the value of our investment in content across all our on-air and online platforms, while continuing to grow the combined audience and commercial performance of TV One and TV2. With this in mind, we’ve decided to recreate the role of general manager of programming. This is a key senior role in our content team and I’m very pleased to have John Kelly in this role.”

While Kelly is certainly a TVNZ veteran by most definitions, the launch of the new season came with first for him in the sense that he found himself holding the reins of not only TV2, but also of TVOne and TVNZ’s rapidly growing on-demand offering.

StopPress popped around to TVNZ’s soon-to-be-previous offices on Auckland’s Hardinge Street to chat to him about his favourite picks of the new season, his thoughts on TVNZ Ondemand, his programming strategy, cancelling shows and what the future holds for the government-backed broadcaster. 

One of the major talking points that accompanied the news of TVNZ’s new season was that the broadcaster was able to raise $100 million in funding to produce local content for 2015.

“A huge amount of it is commercial funding from New Zealand On Air and TMP [Te Mangai Paho – the Maori funding agency] and also production companies, and commercial partners,” says Kelly. “A $100 million is a hell of a lot of money, and we take that very seriously and we want to make great shows with that.” 

Kelly says that this amount is roughly the same as what TVNZ received last year, and he says that it illustrates the faith that investors still have in network to produce shows that attract audiences.

Throughout the course if the interview, Kelly referred to a broad range of new and returning shows across both TV One and TV2 that he says forms the crux of TVNZ’s programming strategy to have the best breadth and depth of programming.” 

Here is a rundown of some of his picks for 2015:

“I think one of our key big titles for TV One is when we Go to War. I’ve seen a little bit of it, because the commission does give me a look at it. It’s amazing. I nearly had a tear in my eye when I watched the opening titles. They’ve just done such a fantastic job with it. A show like that takes a really long time. It’s been a long, long time coming, and that’s why when we’re planning drama, in particular, we’re already working out our plans for the following year. 

Another one that you won’t see in the reel and you won’t see it on [the press release]is one-off called How to kill your wife, and it will be a Sunday theatre. It’s based on a true story and the acting in it is superb. I put it in and I smiled right from the beginning to the end. It’s just wonderful. That’s made by Screentime and that will be coming up in the winter.

The other big TV One thing is Our First Home, which we are very excited about. It’s kind of the Kiwi dream to own your first home, and these days more and more people need the help of their parents to do it.  [In the show], they’ll make over a home, basically. 

It’s my first new season as general manager of programming for TV One, and what we’ve been really careful to do is to actually provide a depth of programming. So we don’t just want to make the same kind of show. So you will see one of the most compelling New Zealand-made documentary series called I am Innocent from Screentime, and it’s about people that were sentenced to prison when they’d actually done nothing wrong. And they tell their stories. The actual approach of the show is incredible. One, in particular, with three girls, who all went to prison is told in such a way that you really feel for them.

Also, watch out for Kiwi Living. That’s a show that we’ve been developing for quite a while. It’s a one-hour lifestyle show, but I can’t tell you who the host is or anything like that.

Nigel Latta, who is just brilliant, will be returning in kind of a different show called Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up. I’m also really happy about 800 words, which South Pacific Pictures are making, so it’s a joint production between TVNZ and Channel 7 in Australia.  

In terms of TV One in 2015, the drama slate for this year is incredible. Broadchurch, which will be playing as close to British transmission as we possibly can. We’ve got an indicative date, and it’s looking to fit right into where we want to run it. Stalker and Forever are two new American dramas, and they’ve both done so well already in America. And In the Club, which is a wonderful British drama, is about a group of pregnant women and their partners, but it’s not a pregnancy drama. Males will also love it. 

There’s also another new show called Indian Summers, which stars Julie Waters, who was Mrs Weasly in Harry Potter. And that’s kind of set in the British Empire in India in the earlier 19th Century.

Another new thing for TV2 is Thunderbirds Are go. I had the good fortune of watching an episode a wee while ago, and it’s beautiful. It has everything that you loved about the original and it has been made wonderfully for a new audience. It’s produced by Pukeko Pictures, using effects from Weta Workshop.

We also have The Big Ward, which looks into the obesity unit at Littlemore Hospital. As a show it took us a long time to be able to actually make it happen, but I’m really happy we persevered with it. I think it will be eye-opening for people.”   

With his background in video editing, Kelly still has a great appreciation for good cinematography and this is evident in the number of times he uses the word ‘beautiful’ in commendation of the work done by Kiwi production companies.   

“We have very good production companies in New Zealand. Imagination produced MKR NZ, Screentime makes Police Ten 7 and they also make I am Innocent as well as one-off dramas for us. Screentime also made How to Murder your Wife. And then you have SPP [South Pacific Pictures]. Big ups to them too for the way that Shortland Street and dramas we have either bought from them or made with them have performed. Look, television is expensive. And what our production companies do with New Zealand budgets is incredible.”

Kelly says that over the course of the last year, the dominance of TVNZ’s soaps in the pre-primetime slots has played a major role in the broadcaster’s overall success. 

Home and Away is incredibly important, because it kickstarts the evening for TV2. Beforehand, we didn’t have anything huge in that and we had to go up against Home & Away. And our share in that hour on TV2 has pretty much doubled … And I really want to emphasise that Shortland Street is the number one drama on New Zealand television. 23 years on, it’s still doing amazingly, and next year I’m really happy that we’re going to bring back the feature length episode. We deliberately took a break from that this year, because we want to keep surprising the audience and giving them something different and new, and so we tried a few things with the scheduling this year. And that will continue next year. There will also be a few Shortland Street mini-sodes that we will also launch, and they’ll be exclusive to TVNZ Ondemand.”  

Kelly says that in addition to attracting significant audience numbers, Shortland Street also plays an integral role when it comes to launching new shows.  

“One thing that I’m really happy that we do with Shortland Street is that we’re able to use it to launch new shows off the back of it,” he says. “We did it this year with the launches of Super Fun Night and Trophy Wife off the back of the one-hour launch, and you can expect us to be doing things like that again in 2015. It’s a great springboard for the primetime schedule for TV2.” 

The reason why TVNZ will once again be using Shortland Street as a launchpad is because several of its international shows will not be returning in 2015. So what is TVNZ dropping in 2015 and what is Kelly’s strategy when it comes to freshening up the schedule every year?

“[Shows] like Super Fun Night and Trophy Night, which did really well here, got cancelled in America. And there are a few other shows that haven’t worked here as well as we’d hoped, so they’ll move to a later or daytime time slot. I think, every year it’s important to have a balance of fresh and returning content. You know, I’ve programmed TV2 for quite some time now, and I remember one season we didn’t launch a single new show. We brought back purely returning hits. It worked really well, but it then made it difficult later in the year when had a whole bunch of new shows and no launchpad to promote them out of. So you need to be careful and you always need to have fresh parts of the schedule. And I can’t tell you what the schedule is at the moment, but both TV One and TV2 will have some freshened up sections, even from a structural point of view—and I think these are equally important. I remember when we launched the two-hour comedy slot by moving Big Bang to 8.30pm, a lot of people said, ‘What are you doing that for? No one wants to watch two hours of comedy back to back.’  And eventually, we realised, ‘yes, they do.’ And so at times, I want the schedules to be built on good shows and make them easy for people to watch.  And at times, it can be gutting, when you have shows like Two and half men—which is still a really high rater for us—come to the end of their road. And it will be sad next year, when we launch a schedule without it, and it will be the first in 12 years.”

In lieu of these comedy shows, Kelly says that TVNZ has brought in a range of other shows that he believes will prove popular over the course of the next year.

“We have two of the funniest comedies to come out of America. The first is Marry Me, which is about a women who is gutted that her boyfriend that didn’t propose to her on holiday … And then we have Benched, which stars Eliza Cuthbert, who was also in Happy Endings, so it’s two of the big Happy Endings stars coming back to TV2. Benched is about a high-flying lawyer or has a meltdown, and she then ends up working at a public law office. Another thing that I’m really happy that we were able to do, with the help of NZ On Air, is to bring back Gloriavale. It was in TV2’s target demo of 18-49, it was the number one show earlier this, so we’re going back to have a look to see how they’re doing. And Step Dave is also coming back.” 

Like most TV executives, Kelly doesn’t enjoy talking about the shows that have been dropped. And he says the reason for this is because they serve as reminders of annoyed fans.

“I hate it if we have to pull a show,” he says. “Even if it’s performed badly, you’re still annoying people. It may not be a huge amount of people, but you’re still annoying people.” 

Interestingly, another source of annoyance for fans lies in TVNZ’s strategy to be first and fast in terms of releasing its shows. This means that the broadcaster has to follow American programming, which is often splits shows into disparate segments.    

“New Zealand is quite different from America, and New Zealanders are used to watching 22 weeks of a show in a row. But now that we’re following fast with shows like Flash, Arrow, Shield and Gotham, we follow the American schedule [which splits 22 episodes out over two periods]. And sometimes we have viewers who question: ‘Why wasn’t it on tonight’. And then we have to say: ‘Well, unfortunately because it wasn’t on in America.’ There are a multitude of reasons why America splits it up like that. And I don’t know whether it will become the norm here as well.” 

TVNZ’s strong combination of soaps and ‘first and fast’ shows has seen the broadcaster dominate the nation’s ratings in recent years. However, the broadcaster now faces a rejuvenated competitor in MediaWorks, and Kelly foresees 2015 serving up cross-network battles across the board.     

“In terms of the big battles this year, I think multi-night programming will serve up more of that. But every time slot is a battle, and I don’t want to give the opposition a free run at all. [That being said], when we schedule we want New Zealanders to watch as many of our shows as possible. And that’s why we don’t actually look at the opposition’s schedule when we’re planning ours. We look at what’s right for TV One and TV2, make sure they’re complementing each other, and then at that point, we begin to think about any weak areas.”

One of the lacunas in TVNZ programming schedule in recent years has been a DIY show, and this has allowed The Block to become something of a ratings juggernaut for MediaWorks. In 2014, TVNZ attempted to counter this with MKR NZ, but the DIY show ended up winning the key ratings battles. In 2015, TVNZ aims to fill this gap in its programming schedule with Our First Home, but Kelly says that it won’t be going up against the popular MediaWorks show. 

Our First Home will be aired early next year, and I don’t think that three will have The Block on during that time. In fact, I’ve seen the rate card so I know that they won’t. When we planned this, we always planned to kick off the air for TV One.”

In his humorous rundown of the TVNZ launch, Spinoff editor Duncan Greive wrote:

“The show [Our First Home] is the first sign in a while that our old publicly owned warhorse TVNZ is aware it’s in a fight. The first shot in anger at the impending The Bachelor-MasterChef-The Block-Grand Designs franchise hydra that’s coming their way. That it contains antagonistic multitudes shows what creative talent remains at TVNZ, chilling behind their endless win streak. It portends a multi-front reality war, coming in 2015.”

And if this is a sign of a more competitive future between the major networks, it can only come as good news for viewers, in the sense that it will bring more choices in its wake. 

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