Saturday, June 22

The audiences aren’t coming back

In the height of the pandemic, I created the South Auckland Comedy Chop Shop, a development initiative that sought to replicate the experience of a comedy table for emerging writers. For those who don’t know what a comedy table is, it’s a space where comedy shows are ‘punched-up’, as in jokes are road-tested and made funnier if need be. The comedy table is the single best part of the business (short maybe of shagging the odd actress) in my opinion. Joined by local giants such as Cohen Holloway, you are sent home drunk on laughter, endorphins coursing through your body after 6 or 7 hours of endless cackling.

I planned to bring along a basic script for some young South Aucklanders to color in with their own jokes, and anecdotes from their lives. As comedy writers we often don’t realise how biographical many of our jokes are, even the more surreal ones.

Once I’d harvested all their good stuff, I would edit it into a script for a comedy album – an approximately half-hour audio comedy experience. In the UK, audio is a prominent steppingstone for comedic talent (even our own ‘Concords’ had a BBC show) but in New Zealand, we’ve not really used it, which is strange considering how inexpensive audio is to produce, and how short we tend to be of funds.

Well, we made it, thanks to some extremely generous donations and support from the iconic OMAC (Otara Music and Arts Centre). And I released it, without much of a marketing strategy I am ashamed to say. But regardless of my neglect, the album, as of today, has enjoyed 128,255 streams. Is this significant? I think so when you consider that NZ producers exist who have bought second homes in Auckland producing off-peak series with well under 10,000 weekly viewers.

Why did it work? I would say relatability. It was created by youth for their peers. Oh, and I got out of the way.

Our industry is currently in crisis. Many practitioners are scared. We’ll be told any proposed cuts by the incoming government are the issue, and that cash injections are all we need. But this ignores the fact that our industry is changing and, when it comes to a number of audiences, the boat has well and truly left the port. When the former broadcasting minister tried to tell us that one of the goals of a merger between RNZ and TVNZ was to attract Māori and Polynesian youth audiences, I questioned the man’s sobriety. They are gone, never to return. And after years of neglect, we can’t blame them.

If government funding was once about capturing and promoting a universal, national spirit we can surely put that notion to bed. The internet caters to every niche available, which means everything we produce now is in competition with infinite channels. This is why former Minister Jackson’s merger reasoning was so mind-blowingly silly. Jackson seemed to think he could turn the clock back to the late 80’s.  

Another issue is at play: our industry is inherently conservative and is dominated by the middle class. Despite the best of intentions, they were never able to serve Polynesian, Māori, or any (especially working class) youth for that matter. The doors were closed to such talent from lower socio-economic areas that could’ve reached this group because we are a producer-led industry and no producer was interested in developing this sort of talent. This isn’t to say some Māori, Polynesian, and other minorities aren’t getting the attention of these producers, but they tend to be of the same class. When I worked at Māori TV and went away on shoots, I was often the outsider, not because I was non-Māori, but because my parents hadn’t been university-educated.

But the years of abandonment don’t matter anymore because talent from lower-socio-economic neighborhoods now have TikTok and Instagram as their networks. They each own a channel now, and a growing number of them command follows that dwarf the numbers of a Guy Williams network show. Some enjoy sponsorship deals and have monetised their content through live appearances and merchandise. The comedy is raw and uncensored, just the way their peers like it. And just the way mainstream networks don’t.

So, with the internet delivering young audiences this sort of new choice, and talent the ability to retain all ownership of IP in a censorship-free zone, what chance do our mainstream networks, and even media platforms have?

The future seems clear: we will all become our own networks, and the smartest of us are already. Take for example ‘Only Fans’. The site allows content creators to create their private paywalled porn channels in which the performer owns absolutely everything. Suddenly the whole ritual feels less exploitative because you know the model doesn’t have a pimp essentially and is spending every cent you give to them. Increasingly we are seeing journalists work this way along with comics.  

This new model serves creatives, whereas the mainstream network model benefited producers and (sometimes even foreign) company owners. Yes, creatives could work under producers, and earn a good wage, but to make real money in this fraught game, you really need to become the boss. So, as emotional as many are after admittingly devastating cuts, can we pretend 20 years of technology and audience trends simply never happened? Or is it time for a more radical approach from funding agencies? Should they remove any platform requirement, and offer smaller amounts of cash ($40K grants) to more young creatives?

Save our stories?

Sure. But the question has to be…

For whom?