Article Title:The Future of Queer Television - The History of Queer Nation
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Published on:12th November 2003 - 12:00 pm
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Story ID:125
Text:Queer Nation producer Andrew Whiteside addresses the queer television symposium convened by TVNZ on November 10, 2003. I am going to be speaking to you today on the history and evolution of Queer Nation and some of my observations about the challenges, strengths and weaknesses of the programme and what its like to make this show. HISTORY It all began in February 1996 when TVNZ's subsidiary regional network, Horizon Pacific Television, began broadcasting Express Report - a half hour gay TV show at 10.05pm. Nettie Kinmont and I were the first hosts. It was studio based, and initially all content was provided by express newspaper. For the first few programmes, Nettie and I basically read an autocue and had a weekly in-studio interview with an invited guest. Even before it first screened, the show created a huge flap in the media. Christian organisations wanted it banned and indeed it was initially from Horizon's Dunedin station but that decision was reversed just before the first screening. After six episodes the show received NZ On Air funding on the proviso that it be re-screened later each week on TVOne. Libby Magee joined us after a few months and we began to make short stories for the show. In August of 1996 the show broke with Express Newspaper and was renamed Out There. This incarnation was still studio-based. Nettie had the first segment called "Nettie's Slot", I did a news segment in part two. The third segment was divided up between lesbian cooking, hair styling, travel and fitness on a rotational basis. I think the show at that point took on a rather surreal quality - with Nettie, Libby and I never quite knowing just what the producer of the show was likely to come up with. We did some interesting stories though in the first year of the programme, including a half hour sex special for Male Call - (a studio discussion -hosted by Nettie on the huge HIV/AIDS and sex practices survey) and a half-hour story on the 10th Anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law reform Bill. Out There was cancelled in early 1997 followed shortly by HPTV itself. Up to that point, we had made 59 episodes, which I believe was quite an achievement. In October 1997 we were reborn, this time on TV2 as Queer Nation. The new show aired at 11.30pm Friday nights, and this first season ran for ten weeks. The production company in charge was Big Sky Films and the show was produced by Rebecca Nolan and Nettie Kinmont. In those days we edited at TVNZ in the news studios which meant editing was tape to tape - a long and slow process and one in which the stories had to be exactly timed and prepared as once they were edited there was no changing them. This is a great way of learning story crafting, but it left no room for error (which is of course impossible), and absolutely no flexibility. The title of the programme Queer Nation generated some heated debate in the community. Particularly among older gay men who objected to the word "Queer" which reminded them of the perjorative nature of the term in the 1950s and 60s. In 1998 QN returned for 13 weeks (June to August). The first five weeks were on a Wednesday night and the last eight on Thursday nights. Queer Nation was different to Express Report and Out There in that it had no studio. There were three main stories per episode, and we did our introductions to the show and stories on location for the first time. I think at this point in its evolution we showed that it was possible to create a viable queer show, one that could stand up on its own two feet, and that there were a variety of story types that could be shown. In 1999 QN returned for 40 weeks, this time made by Livingstone Productions and Nettie in sole charge of producing. We now had a production house to be part of with a proper office. Until then the prep and research had been conducted from our own homes. We also got a fourth presenter as Rodney Leilua joined us. 1999 saw the introduction of an AVID computer-based editing system which led to a huge leap in the production quality of the programme. For the first time we were able to change stories and experiment with the craft of story telling. This is more or less the current situation up till 2003. We have, of course, slowly evolved the show. Presenters have come and gone (with the exception of myself) and the look and feel of the programme has changed. In the last couple of years, we have developed a strong strand of half-hour documentaries but for the most part we have stayed with a structure of three to four stories per episode which began in 1997. STATISTICS I want to briefly share some of the statistics of the show with you. Next week, our 280th episode screens. This is of the regular half-hour type programme. We have also made a one-hour Hero Festival special which aired in February 1998, and two one-hour Gay Games specials, which aired in November 2002. As a conservative estimate, I have worked out we have conducted well over 2000 interviews and since 1997 screened 641 feature stories and countless minor "fillers" or informational pieces. Over the years we have told a wide mixture of story types: from "current affairs" style dealing with issues in our community through to events, and profiles of everyone from politicians and rock stars to healthcare workers and queer parents. We've interviewed artists, priests, lawyers, doctors - you name it the whole gamut of people that make up our communities. RATINGS I just want to talk briefly about our ratings, which have been variable over the years. In many respects a late night TV show never generates huge ratings and the small sample size used to make the figures can make comparisons tricky, but over time we can draw some conclusions and see trends. What the ratings do show us is that QN often wins its timeslot and is often neck and neck with TV3. The show tends to have a younger demographic, and this demographic seem to watch a variety of show,s many of which have a lot more serious content. My favourite anecdote about ratings is the programme which Kelly Rice put together about lesbian sex, which aired earlier this year. It rated a 6 in the Household Shoppers (0-14) demographic, and gained a whopping 65% share. Just why families were up watching lesbian sex with their young children is up to conjecture. This year we have done particularly strongly in Auckland, and we have had a very good response to our half-hour stories. FEEDBACK There has been a lot of feedback over the years - a mixture of both praise and criticism. Some of that criticism has been contradictory but shows the variety of opinion in the community. Examples have included: "it's too serious", "it's not serious enough", "there's too much drag", "there's not enough drag". In fact, drag has probably been one of the most contentious issues for the show. In 2001 we received a slew of complaints from "straight acting" gay men offended by the huge amount of drag on Queer Nation. Ironically, we screened only one story that entire year on drag. My favourite piece of criticism came in the form of a letter containing just one sentence in red pen: "I think your show….." and on the reverse side of the paper was the word: "SUCKS" By far the biggest criticism over the years has been its timeslot. This has still not been addressed. Perhaps on a more serious note are the several letters we get each year from suicidal young queer folk. They are usually male and usually living in small towns where QN is their only link with being gay. We always contact them, and in some desperate cases this intervention has actually saved their lives. During the course of a year, a lot of people write in for advice - anything from dating and social help to coming out tips and requests for more information on a story. All of this shows that this is a television programme, which is very much wedded to its community - it has an iconic status (that doesn't mean a universally appreciated status) but it is very much a part of the culture of the gay community. AWARDS Queer Nation is a multi-award winning programme. It has been a finalist 4 times in the AIDS Media awards - and won them three times. We have been a finalist in the Qantas Media Awards, and a finalist twice in the New Zealand Television Awards - and a winner once in 2003. For a non-prime time programme up against some tough competition (Country Calendar) that is quite an achievement. DIFFICULTIES There are many challenges in making this programme, and the biggest would be making a long run 40 weeks a year programme with a small budget, and a very small team of people. Very few programmes on New Zealand television run this long each year on such a small resource base. It is fast turnaround television. There are many instances where stories fall over, and we have to scrabble to replace them with stories that may be weaker than others. The programme is not as topical as it could be. There are a number of reasons. Sometimes it's about resource - sometimes it's about the fact that the show is made a week before it screens and filming is done two to three weeks before screening - sometimes it's the fact that we fucked up. I think the "fabulous element" of queer life is not really with the programme now. This has particularly been the case since I have been producing (from August 2001). But that has been a conscious decision based on some of the vitriolic criticism there has been about drag, and a perceived lack of depth in previous years. I don't necessarily think everything we have done in the past has lacked depth, but many people have thought so. It is possible that the pendulum has swung a little further away from this than some in the gay communities would like, but I think getting that balance right is a really tricky one. I think this issue sums up the major hurdle of this TV show. It is one programme that is supposed to represent the entire spectrum of the gay population. A population that is as broad and as varied as the entire New Zealand population in terms of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, tastes, needs and desires. It's one programme that is supposed to represent everyone - it's a big ask. This show is more than just a TV programme - every gay person has a stake in it whether or not they like it - whether or not they watch it - because it is basically the only programme that has consistently shown themselves on screen. OBSERVATIONS I think the programme's greatest strength is that it is here. It is visible. It shows real stories about real New Zealanders and its done it consistently for 8 years. Queer Nation is a strong brand and it has a very strong straight audience as well. It has high production values. A whole generation of gay people has grown up knowing this programme exists and, for the most part, they have watched it. It's a programme that unashamedly says - queer people are here and we need to be seen and heard. The most successful programmes I believe we have done have been our half hour documentaries, our stories on relationships, our stories about people living ordinary lives, and our coming out stories. FUTURE We still need queer television and we need it represented in all of the television genres - drama, news and current affairs - not just invested in one programme. But I still believe there is need for a dedicated TV programme or slot on the network that is solely queer. That represents queer people as they are now and that explores our myths, our stories, our triumphs our struggles and our hurts. No matter how hard mainstream television tries, when it comes to minority television (and I don't just mean queer) - it can't capture the true depth of a minority culture - and all too often it results in stereotypic or shallow representation. CONCLUSION I am very proud to have been part of this programme, and I am very proud of the people who have made it and created it over the last eight years. I am very proud that the New Zealand public knows it exists and that New Zealand politicians know it exist. Queer Nation is a difficult beast to define and to create and to manage but it has shown queer people in all their guises, and it has been a consistent and strong part of the New Zealand television landscape for almost a decade. That is an incredible achievement for a small country with a small gay population. Queer Nation has made history and it has captured history. Thank you. - 12th November 2003    
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