TVNZ’s Cate Slater

As director of content at TVNZ, Cate Slater and her team deliver and drive the performance of programs across TVNZ 1 and 2, DUKE and TVNZ+ (formerly TVNZ OnDemand). The focus, guided by a viewer-led strategy, is very much on local content, with acquisitions serving as a way to bring Kiwi audiences something different. Slater tells TV Drama about the changing nature of output deals and what she’s looking for from the international market.

TV DRAMA: What’s guiding TVNZ’s drama strategy at present?
SLATER: We’re a viewer-led organization, so our viewers guide what we commission and acquire. We look closely at what they’re watching, and how they are watching it, to deliver more of the dramas they love each and every day. 

Drama forms a key pillar of our content slate, but audience behavior is quickly evolving, and we’re finding more viewers are gravitating to watch drama online. Some drama is made to be binge-watched, and other drama (including soaps) still follows a daily or weekly release model suitable for linear viewing. As a broadcast TV and streaming service provider, we need to commission and acquire dramas that suit both distribution models to deliver a comprehensive offering that keeps people coming back.

Securing a pipeline of international content is still important to us, but the nature of output deals has changed significantly. We’re seeing more material made specifically for streaming and more flexibility around online rights. With Covid-19 impacting productions around the world and more direct-to-consumer offerings from major players, less of our traditional pipeline of international content is now available to buy. To meet this challenge, we’re working closely with our partners to get the volume and variety we need to sustain and grow our audiences, now and in the years to come.

TV DRAMA: How much of the drama slate comes from acquisitions?
SLATER: Local drama is very important to us; it’s our point of difference when competing against the global streaming platforms available in our market. Local drama also resonates strongly with our viewers, typically outperforming international drama on-air and online. However, we are constrained in the volume of local we’re able to produce due to the cost of production compared to the size of the market. International first-run and library dramas are therefore critical to our slate. In particular, drama from the U.K., Australia and U.S. performs well in our market, particularly with streaming audiences. We’re pursuing a variety of acquisition deals with drama at their heart to feed our streaming service.

TV DRAMA: Are there fewer U.S.-acquired dramas than there have been historically?
SLATER: Yes. Long-term, large-scale output deals of U.S. network programming historically formed the backbone of our TV schedule. Many of these same distributors are now going direct-to-consumer, so we need to provide a different offering. For us, that has meant an increased focus on local drama as well as finding drama acquisitions that provide something different and complementary. 

We do have great partnerships with NBCUniversal and Paramount [formerly ViacomCBS] that provide a volume of quality U.S. drama, but these are as much about the originals produced for their streaming platforms as the traditional network content.

We have found that some U.S. distributors are reluctant to grant full utility of rights. Where this is the case, unfortunately, we have to walk away. Our viewers are consuming across platforms and in their own time. It no longer makes sense for us to secure content where the rights are restrictive or prescriptive. Some U.S. drama is very domestic-focused, too, and this has less relevance for international audiences.

TV DRAMA: What have been some of the most successful acquired dramas for TVNZ as of late?
SLATER: On our channels, lighter British dramas like The Larkins and McDonald & Dodds offer escapist viewing for audiences. On TVNZ+, event dramas like Vigil, Line of Duty, It’s a Sin and The Tourist have all been hits, as well as more soapy guilty pleasures like Why Women Kill and Grey’s Anatomy. Wentworth delivered standout audiences across both platforms throughout all its eight seasons.

TV DRAMA: What’s on your wish list for drama acquisitions?
SLATER: For our channels, we’re looking for consistency of performance from season to season with programs that we can launch and then leave in a slot. Noisy, standout programs that can generate media buzz are also important, as our marketing and publicity teams can capitalize on global momentum to secure strong audiences in New Zealand. Ultimately, better lead times are what we’re looking for, which is a challenge in the Covid era. Drama is a competitive space, and adequate preparation and promotion give us the best chance to hook viewers into a new show.