Children’s TV crying out for a local hero

New Zealand Herald – Opinion Tuesday March 5, 2013 by John Harris

John Harris asks why we have so few Kiwi dramas on TV for children and so little money for production.

NZ On Air contributed $28m to adult dramas, like Go Girls while young drama got a fraction of that.

The United States has produced and immortalised a huge number of “heroes”: Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Revere, Geronimo, Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, Luke Skywalker, Hannah Montana, Calamity Jane, Pocahontas, Bonnie and Clyde, Hiawatha, Spider-Man. Some good role models, some bad. Some true, some fictional. Their stories have been celebrated through film and television.

How many New Zealand popular heroes can you name? Probably not many. We aren’t so great at celebrating our local heroes on TV and film. But this could change with a little more help from New Zealand On Air.

Adults and children receive generous NZ On Air funding for factual programmes on TV. But when it comes to drama, children are relegated to the back seat.

Last financial year NZ On Air contributed $28.5 million of public money towards drama for adults (Go Girls, Nothing Trivial, The Blue Rose, Harry, Siege, and so on). Children were awarded only $1.034 million for one drama (Girl v Boy). Why the big difference?

If this concerns you, you should write to NZ On Air and ask it to change its attitude to drama for young people. Because it won’t do it voluntarily.

The cold hard fact is that our broadcasters (like most broadcasters around the world) don’t actually want local children’s drama. There’s no money in it. They would rather pump their resources into prime time programming which can attract the big advertising bucks.  Because profit is their mandate.  In Australia – the lucky country – their broadcasting regulations force networks to screen local children’s drama. No such luck here in New Zealand.

NZ On Air is statutorily obliged to put money into children’s TV – and it does a great job funding such local favourites as What Now, Sticky TV, and Let’s Get Inventin’.  But they’re mostly factual/magazine/studio shows. Where’s the local drama?  NZ On Air should also be giving priority to family drama that Mum and Dad can watch with their children.  The alternative is that Kiwi kids spend their time watching American and British drama on Disney and Nickelodeon. It may be beautifully filmed, slick, well-written and acted, but it’s about the people of other countries. Countries whose culture, clothes, music, language and values are not necessarily the same as ours.

Shortland Street has been deservedly praised for “normalising” and validating Kiwi accents and attitudes. For the same reasons, we should be providing drama for a younger audience (say ages 8 to 12) as well. So they can see themselves and their neighbourhoods on our screens, and follow Kiwi actors and heroes.

NZ On Air is charged with providing a range of drama, factual content and entertainment for Kiwis – “to put New Zealand on air”. It does a good job for adults – but surely that commitment is even more important when viewers are young and are forming their view of the world and their place in it.  Our own heroes, role models, stories.  Factual programmes go only so far. It is drama that has the emotional impact, that tells powerful stories and creates legends.  That gives us our own role models, our own stories, our own heroes and villains.  Not so long ago, NZ On Air regularly funded children’s drama series. Why has that commitment evaporated?

I believe NZ On Air should establish a policy of funding two major New Zealand drama series a year for the family audience. The board will point out that it has a finite amount of money and a lot of special interests to address.

We know that, of course. My point is that family drama should be a priority. Even if it means a bit less money for adults.  The broadcasters won’t like this. But if Kiwi parents let NZ On Air know they want more locally-made family drama, then NZ On Air will have the confidence to insist on it. By earmarking the money for family drama, it can make it happen.  The recently-formed New Zealand Children’s Screen Trust – of which I am a trustee – aims to raise awareness of the value of local content for children. It’s important that New Zealanders make their views known on this subject if they want local drama they can sit down and watch as a family.  NZ On Air has the opportunity this year to do something really worthwhile for our kids, by allocating more money for family drama.  I believe it wants to – but it needs some noisy support from Kiwi parents to justify any change in its priorities.

John Harris is managing director of production company Greenstone TV.