Inside: Attitude Group

Attitude Pictures has been telling the stories of New Zealanders living with disabilities, recovering from injuries and dealing with health problems since 1992 and broadcasting on TVNZ since 2005. It brought those stories into the real world in 2008 with the creation of the Attitude Awards and, around one year ago, it moved online and into the world of live streaming when it launched its website Attitude Live. Producer Dan Buckingham and managing director Denis Harvey share their thoughts on the evolution of a successful niche media group, how it intends to make a profit and why corporates should get involved.  

Early on most Sunday mornings, Attitude TV tells the stories of amazing New Zealanders achieving great things in spite of—and sometimes because of—their disabilities. It’s the good kind of reality TV, it deserves to be seen by more people and it’s often off the charts on the goosebump creation index. And now it’s taking the story-telling skills it has developed over the years into other areas. 

Dan Buckingham, who hosted the show for many years alongside Tanya Black (both are now producers), says the show has really grown and matured over the years. 

“We started really niche with four seven minute pieces over a commercial free half hour. It was almost community notice board style. And then it evolved into longer stories. They’re awesome characters and we found that we were just scratching the surface on these stories so we started investing more and doing longer pieces and then in 2009 we started delivering half hour pieces. We kept evolving. We lost the presenters and now we hardly have any voiceover anymore, so it’s really character-driven half hour style pieces.” 

With NZ on Air funding, he says it works out to a budget of about $40,000 per episode, so it’s pretty tight. But that’s the reality of being in the TV industry, he says. And those restrictions often lead to inventiveness. 

“You get by on passion and a lot of extra hours … It’s a little bit like making a movie. If you’ve got an unlimited budget, you’d never know where to stop.” 

Buckingham’s favourite documentaries: 

As it runs in a commercial free spot on a Sunday morning, he says the numbers are variable and things like an All Blacks test being replayed on Sky can have a big impact on its audience. Some weeks he says viewership will be up around 80,000, with the episode showcasing the winners from the Attitude Awards bringing in the biggest audience. And, not surprisingly, it’s been pushing for a better slot, although with the increasing commercial focus of TVNZ, that seems unlikely. 

It has also produced a new seven-part series called Being Me, which is running on TVNZ at 11.30am on Sundays, and it’s also done a number of other prime time docos on the London Paralympics and the paralympic cycling and swimming teams that screened on Prime (it has now filmed in over 25 countries). 

While Attitude sells some of its content to other broadcasters, it’s not a big earner, Buckingham says, but it delivers back to NZ on Air if it is sold. It has a distributor based in the UK so he says its content is now going to over 20 countries and has also struck up a deal to run video content on the website of US title Ability

In 2008, Buckingham, who was paralysed in a rugby accident in 1999 and has been a central member of the Wheel Blacks wheelchair rugby team, says it was doing a lot of work on transitions and the shift of disabled people from school to work. So, in an effort to show employers how people with disabilities could achieve, as well as create role models for young people with disabilities and turn the heads of corporate New Zealand to the opportunities, it created a big, grand black tie event called the Attitude Awards and invited VIPs from the sector, politicians, celebrities, sports people and corporates. 

Last year it had over 100 entries across eight categories. And Buckingham says the main point of difference, aside from the emotional tug all the finalists and winners give, is that it sends a crew around the country to film each finalist and creates vignettes. 

“The feedback is phenomenal. We produce a finalist episode a month out. And with Attitude Live, we have a People’s Choice so you can see the stories there ahead of the night. If you buy into the character, you enjoy the event.”

  • Check out the finalists here

The event is funded by a separate part of NZ on Air, with Outside Broadcast filming the event with seven cameras. This year Attitude Group emerged the winner in the ABU Prizes 2014 perspective category for its documentary on the awards (it has also been chosen to participate in the 1 Asia co-production initiative, which is funded by the Japanese Government​). 

“Trying to squeeze about four hours of footage from the night into a one hour slot is tough—especially the day after a big event,” Buckingham says.  

Buckingham says the awards have kept getting bigger and better and it’s getting easier to sell sponsorships and tickets, with over 600 people attending last year’s event at Viaduct Events Centre (the awards are scheduled for December 3 this year and it’s looking at moving to a bigger venue next year). 

As for the website, Buckingham says he and Attitude Group founder Robyn Scott-Vincent went to the AIDC conference in 2012 and it was a bit of a watershed moment. Some of the big broadcasters were impressed with how much great content it was capable of pumping out. It realised it had been doing it for years and had built a lot of trust and credibility and an archive that they wanted to do more with. And that’s where Buckingham says the “leap of faith” that is Attitude Live was conceived.

“We realised we could do a lot more and deliver on things like creating and connecting the community in what is actually quite a fragmented area. The needs are so different between someone who’s blind and someone who’s deaf. But they have the same recurring themes of being outside the norm and having the same wants, fears and anxieties as any able bodied person and wanting to have their story told.” 

Around the same time, Denis Harvey, who has 32 years of TV production and network management experience, including as head of production for TVNZ and running production for the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the America’s Cup, joined the company to run its coverage of the Sochi Winter Paralympics and was then asked by Scott-Vincent to come onboard to try and grow the business.

“That was the motivation,” he says. “I appreciate what the content is, what they’re doing with it, and the way they approached taking a broadcast programme online. That’s a unique approach for a production company in New Zealand to take. In fact globally, there aren’t that many companies who have taken a relatively unique product and developed their own web platform.” 

The site isn’t funded by NZ on Air and it was launched with the help of some seed money from an anonymous donor who has taken an equity stake.

Increasingly, he says, the internet is allowing people to find programmes, not channels.

“So you talk to people and ask them if they watch this channel or that channel, and they talk about the programes they watch. I admire Robyn taking a plunge into that space. And while it’s in the disability and mental health sector, which is a huge sector in terms of percentage of population, they’re also just really good human interest stories.” 

It was a big call buying the rights from the International Paralympic Committee, which also include the swimming World Champs, Athletic World Champs in Doha and Rio 2016, especially when you consider Scott-Vincent didn’t have anyone who had expertise in that area to run it.

“But that’s part of Robyn’s vision. She says: ‘No-one else is doing it, so we’ll do it. And it deserves more than it’s getting’.” 

Harvey believes the live streaming coverage was a success, even though it was done in a bit of a hurry. 

“If you look at Sky’s cumulative audience for the [paralympics]before, with the TVNZ audience for a doco we made and our online streaming we got double that. Our intention for Rio [which he says is a $500,000 investment]is to live stream in much the same way as we did in Sochi. We will want to have some kind of broadcast and TVNZ are keen to partner. So it depends what goes on TV. The dialogue with the likes of TVNZ becomes ‘what investment are you prepared to make to make it happen?'”

Buckingham says granting the rights to an online provider was also a bit of a test for the International Paralympic committee, and, as evidenced by the likes of golf and the English Premier League, it’s happening more frequently as the technology gets better. 

“We’re on the cusp of it. There are some people doing it well and some still grappling with how to deliver it. We were really proud of what we did [it had seven people on the ground in Russia and another team in New Zealand]. We promised 44 hours and delivered just over 50 hours of live streaming. And then we had on-demand behind-the-scenes vignettes, athlete profiles and opinion pieces as well.” 

There was a big spike in audience on the website during the games, and certain stories have also bumped up the numbers, but Buckingham says Attitude Live is growing steadily and organically and is now up to 16,000 users per month, with 58,000 page views and an very long average session duration of 7.00 minutes. So while it’s a small audience, Harvey says it’s very engaged. 

“When I started at the beginning of the year, we asked a few people if we could build a ratecard around the audience and the feedback we got was no,” says Harvey. “We’re probably a bit more confident as we get to the end of the year and the audience has grown. If we compare our audience to some magazines that are able to attract advertisers with that level of circulation, then we’re getting close.” 

So is Attitude a commercial entity? Or a not-for-profit? 

Buckingham says it obviously has a social purpose, but it needs money to bring its grander ideas to fruition—and it has plenty of them. And Harvey says bluntly “it needs to make a profit or it dies”.

“That’s the shift that Attitude is going through. The programme is supported by NZ on Air. So that’s not a commercial thing. Attitude Live doesn’t have an ongoing funding model. ACC and MSD are very supportive upfront. But now the shift for Attitiude Live is to be commercial sustainable. And that’s what I’m trying to do.” 

Making money from an online media property isn’t easy, as any of the big publishers can attest. And, as Harvey says, it’s very much a chicken and egg situation.

“Until you’ve got an audience, you can’t show commercial value. And to grow your audience you need to invest in marketing and development so you’ve got to find a way to fund it and keep it running. And I think we’re just starting to get to the point where we’re getting enough of an audience to be able to show that there’s an opportunity there.”

As the market fragments, he says companies are being more analytical about how they spend their money. It’s trying to shift the conversation from a straight cost per click model to one based around sponsors being connected to the sector and showing support for a sector that, according to the latest census, now represents one quarter of the population.

“I think there are two things. 1) it depends where in an organisation you’re having the dialogue. If it goes to their agency and it comes out of their ad spend, a media buyer is looking at analytics. They look a little bit at environment but it’s not what drives them. We’re looking at what we call a CSO, or corporate social opportunity, and therefore the money often comes out of a different bucket. But they’re hard doors to open.” 

Unlike many media properties, Attitude isn’t really a channel where brands can reach consumers. For example, medical consumables companies that might market their goods through advertising and sponsorship in overseas markets, don’t need to do that here due to this country’s health system. 

“ACC gets bagged a lot but from what I’ve seen around the world, it’s an awesome model,” says Buckingham. “Legislation over litigation definitely works … So we’re looking for companies who might have CSO money they’re wanting to contribute.” 

Harvey says TVNZ has been great and incredibly supportive, but given the content is also available on TVNZ ondemand, where it can and has been commercialised, does Attitude Live step on its toes? And could it pull its support (production companies need a commitment from the broadcaster to get NZ on Air funding) or get specific funding for online content? 

“NZ on Air has reviewed their digital funding but it’s small relative to the rest of the funding,” says Harvey. “It’s a challenge they’re trying to get their head around. You could reach a point with Attitude where we’ll fund it, but it’s only going to be available on an online platform. That shift for some of this type of content is coming.” 

Harvey says there is nothing like Attitude Live around the world and it exists because it has the luxury of the 35-40 documentaries a year that are funded for broadcast. He says TVNZ could decide not to broadcast it, but he says it’s a win-win for NZ on Air because their goal is for as many people to see the content as possible so it gets the benefit of broadcasting and online. 

Most of the content that appears online is repurposed from broadcast, but he says it also does some things specifically for Attitude Live, to the extent that funds allow. 

“We make a mini-doc of every programme, which we put up every week. And we make additional content based around that. It might be some other content that was shot during the documentary, or we might go back into the archives. We don’t have the luxury of going out and making it.” 

In most cases, he says it’s not an equipment issue, however. It’s about human expertise and the craft of being able to tell a story.

“Some people think it’s because you have to buy all this gear. But you can do a feature film on a iPhone if you want, if it’s a good story and it’s really well told.” 

Some ads have been shot in that way and he points to a feature film out of Ghana where cost constraints meant every scene was shot on ten iPhones. So is the ‘good enough’ mentality of the internet, er, good enough? 

“We could do that. But we want to maintain the quality as high as we can. All of our videos are in full HD. We want to set the bar high in terms of video and audio quality … You need to decide where you want to be in the market. If we’re going to go out to a commercial market you need to be at the top end, not the bottom end.” 

Buckingham says moving the content online and buying rights to sporting events is about playing the long game.

“We’re building an audience, we’re doing things right and the money will come. We’ve got to find a way somehow … We’ve been really focused on producing content, but we’re trying to shift our balance to promoting the content because there’s so many options now we need to let people know about it. We’re really proud of what we produce, but we’d love to have more eyes on it.” 

Buckingham says it’s been doing a lot of strategic thinking about the Attitude Group, which employs just over 20 full-timers and many more depending on the ebbs and flows of broadcasting, and how it can cross over into other areas.

“There’s always the capacity to do more work, whether that’s producing other documentaries, or doing corporate content.” 

He says that’s something it wants to grow. But he’s pretty sure it will always have that focus on disability and health.

“And when you look at the numbers it makes sense. It’s a fast growing population. One in five people identified as having a disability in 2005, and it was one in four in the 2013 census. It’s a pretty straight correlation with the aging population. And disability is under-represented in the media. We also think it’s a market that’s untapped and ignored. We’ve been doing this for a number of years and we think we’re pretty good at it now.” 

In some ways, the planets are coming into alignment for the sector. The Paralympics are becoming more popular—both for viewers and sponsors—due to more and better broadcasting by the likes of Channel 4 and NBC and improvements to the games themselves (in Glasgow they ran inside the able-bodied events); disabled athletes are more frequently being signed up as brand ambassadors; and diversity in the workplace, whether through ethnicity, disability or sexuality, is increasingly seen as a positive thing. 

“P&G are doing it well and getting it right. Their main market is mothers. They tell stories of athletes who just happen to have a disability, so it’s more about athletes who have been supported along the way. But there’s a fine line between not being cheesy or patronising and being uplifting and overcoming adversity. We’re normalising disabilities. And they have real stories. But we don’t shy away from the disability. And that’s the great thing about the Paralympics.” 

As Harvey says, broadcasters, viewers and sponsors are seeing there’s more emotion there.

“I’ve done six Olympics and one of the most inspiring moments for me was the American skier in Sochi with one arm and one leg skiing the downhill. This is true athleticism and I think that’s the shift. These people are being treated as outstanding athletes, rather than people with a disability competing. In New Zealand, the likes of Sophie Pascoe’s achievements and Mary Fisher and Adam Hall. The fact that they have a disability is a side story, not the main story.” 

Sophie Pascoe is an ambassador for Westpac, which sponsors the Attitude Awards and the Halberg Foundation, as well as Speedo, New Zealand Beef and Lamb and others.

“The encouraging thing is that these people are an inspiration to other people with a disability. When the Wheel Blacks won a gold medal in Athens they thought ‘I could do that. In the US, it’s become a huge thing for veterans. They’ve become great role models.” 

Like all social change, it’s incremental, says Buckingham. So things could always improve. But Attitude is leading the way. 

​”There’s a quote we break out on the diversity of the workplace by one of board members, David Rutherford: ‘It’s not the unity of uniformity we seek but the harmony of diversity’.” 

It has shown how that can work, and many of its staff are disabled. But it wants to illustrate that to more employers and one of its projects is to develop a dedicated micro-site around employment that might help take a bit of the fear away by telling positive stories. 

“Employment is a big part of it and it’s part of the government’s policy to get people back into the work force,” says Harvey. “Government has been a really strong supporter. But they have to justify their investment. We like to think that we deliver pretty well on that investment. And we are an effective form of communication given we already connect with that audience and we attract a broader audience as well.” 

And whether it’s a story about someone with depression, a recovery from injury, or a run-down of what life is like when you’ve got Parkinsons, video is one of the best ways to tell stories, Harvey says.

“Reading an article doesn’t have the same emotional response. And that’s one of the reason we focus on video because it has the ability to engage more than the written word.” 

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