Hard News by Russell Brown

99

Gay, but really not happy

One of the things the TVNZ Charter is meant to do is to guarantee the production and screening of programming for and about minority communities. The relevant part is a fairly ugly piece of written English, but it gets the point across. It undertakes that TVNZ will:

Feature programming that serves the varied interests and informational needs and age groups within New Zealand society, including tastes and interests not generally catered for by other national television broadcasters

So why has TVNZ, ever since the Charter arrived in 2003, insisted on turning out charter programming that does not only fail to serve the tastes and needs of one minority group - the gay community - but is actively disliked by nearly three our of four gay people?

The story begins with the canning of the long-running magazine show Queer Nation in 2003, at the behest of Tony Holden. Queer Nation had pretty much run as an independent republic for several years. Sometimes it was very good (when it turned itself over to short documentaries) and at other times not so good. You could certainly have made a case that, with the new broom of the Charter, it was time for a revamp, some new faces and some new ideas.

What actually happened was pretty weird. TVNZ changed its approach to commissioning and decided that it would specify a format and then take proposals on that. There also seems to have been a desire for gay programming that wouldn't alienate straight people.

The result was The Outhouse and then Kiwifruits. The latter programme seems to have been under instruction to, at all times, be as trivial as possible. It was a struggle for some of those involved to get anything sensible to air, even to mark the twentieth anniversary of homosexual law reform, which ought to have been occasion for the telling of stories and the taking of stock.

The Lesbian Puppets - who were scripted by straight people and conducted interviews on the programme - appear to have been a particular bugbear with gay viewers expecting grown-up programming. Can you imagine Maori tolerating a "Maori programme" whose format was ordained by pakeha TV executives, was produced by a pakeha-run company, and was focused (to an extent that's almost grim in itself) on the lighter side of being Maori?


And now, after the NZ On Air survey that indicated these programmes' overwhelming failure to connect with their ostensible audience, TVNZ (in what appears to have been one of Holden's last decisions there) has commissioned another one: a reality show.

Specifically, it's a 10-episode fly-on-the-wall show called Express Yourself, which follows the doubtless wacky working days of the people at the freebie gay newspaper, Express. It will be produced by Glen Sims, who learned his trade with Julie Christie.

[Update: This is a little unfair to Sims, who had a career in "ob-doc" TV in Britain before he came to New Zealand. It's worth noting that the production company, Umbrella Productions, is owned and run by two out gay men, and that Steven Oates, of 95bFM, Queer Nation and Maori TV fame, will be directing.]

At which point we run into some community politics. Express was founded (originally as Man to Man) by Jay Bennie, who sold the paper and went on to found gazynz.com, which has been ground zero for dissatisfaction with TVNZ's gay programming. Jay has posted a carefully-worded editorial on the topic, which is being discussed in much more forthright terms on the site's reader forums. He notes that gaynz.com had agreed to offer "some editorial and technical support" to two competing props, both of them for gay magazine shows.

I've met a couple of the people involved with Express and they're nice enough, but Express isn't the centre of the gay community and it contains nowhere near the strength and breadth of writing you'll find on gaynz.com. It seems, so to speak, a queer use of a limited pool of funding to plough the lot into 10 reality episodes about one gay business in the hope that us straight folks will find it amusing.

I think it's entirely reasonable for the gay community to want a good-quality magazine programme as their lot from the Charter. These programmes, done right, can be mainstream successes in their own right: Channel 4's Out on Tuesday being the classic example.

Oddly enough, Maori TV is doing this, on a fraction of the budget. Takataapui, "the only show for gay, lesbian and transsexual Maori", actually covers real stories - things that actually matter to the community, like the closure of Herne Bay House. There is no shortage of skills or motivation to make a sensible programme for the gay community. But what TVNZ wants seems anything but sensible.

Righto, running a little late, so that'll do for now. Anyone with a view on this is more than welcome to discuss it in our forums.

Two things: We got a new kitten yesterday, and our boy Leo got some video, edited it in iMovie and uploaded the clip to his YouTube account (which we didn't actually know he had). Feel free to have a look and leave him a comment.

And - ta da! - our slightly red-faced developer guys have detected a glitch that was hampering the appearance of Gravatars on Public Address System forums. You too can now have a clever little picture next to you name. Just go and sign up here (and wouldn't you know it, the site is temporarily down …).

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