Damien Venuto: The two things TVNZ and Discovery have in common

OPINION:

TVNZ’s showcase of the programming that viewers can look forward to in 2022 was a little more subdued than the gung-ho announcements that came out of Discovery last week.

While Discovery took its moment in the spotlight to announce two new television channels, changes to The AM Show and a raft of new local content, TVNZ has opted to do more of what has worked over the past few years.

From the outside, this looks like a classic example of incumbent versus challenger brand strategies. While Discovery needs to jump around to attract eyeballs, TVNZ is leaning into the strategy that has already given it such a solid lead.

The great irony is that the challenger, Discovery, happens to be a multinational giant worth billions, whereas TVNZ is simply a New Zealand broadcaster.

However, when you’re playing the local game, the only thing that matters is viewers – and TVNZ has long had the upper hand in that department.

“Our strategy is very much a continuation of what you see working for us at the moment,” TVNZ content director Cate Slater tells the Herald. “We’re really doubling down on digital growth.”

While their strategies and ownership structures couldn’t be further apart, the two things these competitors have in common are declining TV audiences and the growing spectre of international streaming services.

Their weapon against those challenges is local content.

Slater promised a wider, more diverse spread of local content that will help to tell Aotearoa’s stories. This builds on the commitment TVNZ made this year to up its investment in local content to the highest level in a decade.

Viewed alongside Discovery’s promise to boost its local content production by 75 per cent, it shows that telling local stories will become even more important as consumption habits continue to shift.

Some of this content will be aired on broadcast TV (as is the case with Shortland Street), but a decent chunk will go straight to the on-demand networks owned by both channels.

Some traditionalists might view this in a negative light, arguing that local stories are being relegated to digital channels, but that is increasingly where Kiwis consume their content.

“We know that TV audiences are going to decline over time,” says Slater. “So we want to make sure that TVNZ OnDemand content is growing at a greater pace than those declines.”

TVNZ OnDemand is already reaching a million New Zealand viewers a week, and the service has 2 million accounts registered. These services are no longer niche outliers tagged onto standard viewing habits; for many, it’s become the preferred way to see theirfavourite shows.

Both TVNZ and Discovery have strong international content partnerships, but they also understand that their key differentiator is telling stories that resonate specifically with New Zealanders.

The cultural impact of streaming, in terms of diversity, is perhaps best seen with the example of Netflix, which has allowed for a decentralisation of the cinematic experience. While mainstream viewing was once dictated largely by the big studios in California, today’s viewers can easily watch a South Korean series about a dystopian game show, or an elaborate heist drama set in Spain. International films can win the Academy Award for Best Picture and our cultural references are becoming increasingly varied.

The problem, however, is that Netflix tends to invest in the areas that offer the most scale and the biggest audiences – neither of which the team of 5 million can provide.

If New Zealand cinematic culture is left to the mercy of these economic forces, it runs the risk of being buried not only in Hollywood cliches, but also under the work of far bigger countries.

Broadcasters in the local market aren’t chasing global scale, which means they are better placed to provide platforms to tell local stories. The tricky part will be ensuring that subscribers actually tune in to those local shows, rather than taking their media minutes elsewhere.

Asked about the programming strategy as it relates to on-demand content, Slater explained that the aim isn’t to have every show appealing to every single New Zealander.

Instead, the OnDemand platform provides the opportunity to invest in niche shows that appeal to specific audiences, which combine for a cumulative effect.

She points to the examples of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which will return for a second season, and a new show Kid Sister, which tells the story of a young Kiwi Jewish woman caught between two worlds.

These shows certainly aren’t for everyone, but they’re likely to attract loyal audiences that have long struggled for representation in traditional media.

“I can’t remember a time that we’ve seen a story told through the lens of a Jewish New Zealander,” says Slater. “I think it’s really exciting that we’re now able to do that.”

As far back as 2015, media and advertising commentator Bob Hoffman exclaimed that “TV isn’t dying. It’s having babies.” We’re now seeing that those babies are more diverse than anything that has come before – and that can only be a good thing for anyone who likes an original story.

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