NZTECHO Autumn 2014 Issue 60 Point of View
Think 1980s’ Top Town and the days when TV shows could bring families and communities together. Despite ongoing commercial challenges we face in this industry, content should still be king writes cinematographer Waka Attewell, or even just sometimes at least.
Gazing out on the windswept tundra of free-to-air TV and as people stay away from it in droves, it is a hard push to find an argument for devoted viewership. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet some of the best quality TV ever is being created by the likes of HBO and AMC.
Could this not be us we have to ask? The answer is yes it could be us, yet entrenched orthodoxy seems to be still dictating the requirements … more cooking shows anyone?
These death throes of sane TV programming got me thinking. I am fairly certain that my cultural and political awareness was formed in the Pacific Film Unit’s tearooms. I would like to think with taste and good judgement too. The 1970s invited an excuse to fight, we tilted at windmills and believed our opinions and self aggrandizing would make a difference.
Someone came up with the quaint notion of doing all the thinking before the camera came out of the box – this dictum kept things pretty much on track for a few decades. Ridiculous hours and unrealistic schedules didn’t matter, the money was not all that regular but there always seemed to be enough.
With our TV programme making there wasn’t a sense of ‘what does the broadcaster want’ but a sense of ‘what can we offer’ – preferably something that would invoke thought and debate? The film and TV business fitted nicely into the grand plan, with the desire of building something solid and everlasting. A voice of the people-type ideal with community shows like Top Town and Country Calendar ruling the ratings. Little did we realise that the neoliberals were out the back filling the ‘Kool-Aid’ vats with their toxin – we were fiercely ambitious and hopeful and everything seemed possible until the late 1980s crashed and burned.
The notion of ‘just getting by’ was challenged by the commercial imperative that came knocking. It went something like this, you conclude that the way forward is this fancy new corporate model and you studiously obey (stopping just short of commissioning your own ‘mission statement’). Suddenly you are quoting jobs on fast food, fruit juice, fashion and car commercials. You quickly became horrified at the guy you once knew when you catch yourself waxing lyrical in the advertising agency about ‘brand recognition’ and before you know it ‘you’re whisking up a treat’ and nodding sagely along with the discussion about the ‘society we live in’ as you adroitly add to the problem gambling while name dropping ‘demographic’ and pretending to know what ‘appetite appeal’ actually meant. You particularly like the American accent in the room as it makes you feel worldly and while you are having an out-of-body experience you agree to do the three 30-second cut downs gratis. The yank has the economic speak down pat, he talks of ‘risk adverse’ and ‘cheap money’ (actually what he means is cheap people).
The ‘delusions of grandeur’ isn’t so obvious yet as half truth is the new currency. This quickly becomes the new normal as a $10,000 limit on a credit card (you didn’t ask for) arrives in the fast post. The TV channels think it is only about making money, which is quickly followed by formula programme-thinking (a stencil imported from the US) – then the new radical concept of ‘cashflow’ is introduced to the mix (this tends to happen when the banks get involved). Suddenly you are pitching like mad and churning out stuff for the broadcasters they thought they wanted. Old problem here is if you give a broadcaster what they ‘want’ it is usually not what is ‘needed’ – there is an all but brief moment when a tax break makes NZ feature films possible.
We all look back fondly on this time as the ‘national cinema era’. Well that was the last 30 years.
So as the economy heads again for that moment when the proverbial ‘they’ talk up the recovery whilst avoiding the words ‘train wreck’, ‘run away debt’ or ‘fiscally challenged’ – let us spare a thought for when the boom hits and what we want to rebuild and let us be careful with whom we crawl into bed with and gift our craft skills and our finances to. As you already know the final outcome will probably leave you hanging off the debt cliff
while just a few still prosper.
So rather than enslave ourselves again into a service-type role, how about we think of these interesting times as just-interesting-times by firstly resurrecting the wreckage of ‘national cinema’. Then let us make some TV programmes that have a bit of content (if TV don’t want it then stream it on the internet) and get back to the old wisdom of doing the thinking before the camera comes out of the box.