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The Future of Queer Television

Tue 11 Nov 2003 In: Television View at NDHA

With whiteboard pen poised, TVNZ's Tony Holden set out in earnest to gather opinion on the future of New Zealand's queer television at a symposium held in Auckland yesterday. Mooted nobly as "a broad discussion that starts the process of defining the positioning of gay programmes on New Zealand television", the purpose of the gathering was to discuss gay visibility on our screens, as well as debate the future of the world's longest-running gay TV programme, Queer Nation. Queer Nation executive producer Johnny Givins said, in an opening address, that queer television in New Zealand had come a long way since drunken heckling of John Inman at a GOFTA awards ceremony over twenty years ago, referring to an incident where the camp Are You Being Served? star was subjected to calls of "Get off, ya poofter" from members of the audience. Givins believes that QN has been a part of the change for the positive that has occurred since that time, and acknowledged Nettie Kinmont and Andrew Whiteside for pioneering gay television made by and for gay people eight years ago with QN's first incarnation, Express Report. Andrew Whiteside's address began with an eight-minute compile of the history of QN, showing the vast range of stories (and indeed, hairstyles) that have been covered by the programme in countless hours of television. He said he had moved the programme in a more serious direction over the last few years, with fewer stories per episode and the introduction of the half-hour documentary format. Out of all the feedback received over the years, Whiteside said it has been 70% positive. For some gays and lesbians in small towns, or those in cities who are not yet out, QN is their only connection to other people like themselves, and that because of this the show is more than just a network show, because it is "wedded in the identity of the community it represents, whether they like it or not, whether they watch it or not". Some of the most moving correspondence received by the programme during its time on air had been from men and women close to suicide, for whom the show had literally been a lifeline. NZ On Air's Annie Murray congratulated the QN team on continuing to produce "quality TV against all odds", in what was described as a "difficult year". She said that NZ On Air's periodic research into programme satisfaction had seen QN consistently come out very well in viewer response. MP Georgina Beyer in a timely address offered a "political reality check" to the gathering in her stressing of the importance of queer television. She cited the rise of homophobia in Parliament and in the media, through the likes of Brian Tamaki and the Maxim Institute, and that queer voices on TV were vital in providing balance. She said we need to sustain the momentum that has been built up over the last thirty years, and that it is our responsibility to encourage informed debate by showing mainstream society what our lives are really like, and to dispel stereotypes. MP Tim Barnett backed up her statements, adding that with the introduction of the civil unions bill that the media was likely to be dominated next year with debate over our relationships, re-emphasising a need for balanced discussion. Concerns were raised from the gathering about homophobic comments on television, with TV2 "comedian" Mike King being cited as one example. If TVNZ was so committed to positive queer representation, it was asked, surely it should also be committed to policing of denigration on its other shows? Complaints have also been lodged for years regarding QN's late timeslot, which TV2 programmer Brian Holland said was not an issue of censorship, nor had it ever been. There are plenty of other shows that are on late, and other programmes, such as "Tagata Pasifika" or "Marae" which also have obscure timeslots. Tony Holden explained that TVNZ's prime-time period is from 6pm till 10.30pm, and as 83% of TVNZ's revenue comes from advertising ran during this time, minority programming of any sort cannot entrench upon these golden hours unless it is going to reach a wider audience. To that end, he is keen for producers to submit proposals for new shows - like dramas, comedies, and documentaries with a gay theme, as these would come under genre categories for funding and not from the limited pool of money allocated to "special interest" programming, from which "Queer Nation" derives its funding. Andrew Whiteside pointed out the difficulties that have always been inherent in producing a large number of shows with a relatively small budget, and questions were raised about the possibility of corporate sponsorship. Johnny Givins said there had been many promising discussions with various companies over the years which had, unfortunately, never resulted in a deal being closed. He said usually those deals would hinge on one person at a company, rather than being part of a corporate initiative, making it difficult to sustain a relationship. Rumours about QN's possible demise were quashed with Givins' announcement that the show would return in 2004, albeit with a slashed season of 13 episodes - down from the 40 programmes a year that have been screening for the last two years. What happens after those 13 episodes have elapsed was one of the main purposes of the symposium, said Tony Holden, who several times stressed TVNZ's commitment to queer television. Following an afternoon address from NZ On Air's Annie Murray, who explained the chicken-and-egg funding process whereby producers must secure broadcaster interest before they're eligible to apply for programme funding, an open forum discussion was held about the future of QN, at which time QN's producers and staff were banished from the room. The pros and cons of the existing show were discussed, with a general conclusion being reached that although "Queer Nation" was a strong brand, and an award-winning programme with high production values that had nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it was thought that the programme had diluted its impact through being forced to be "all things to all people", a problem that Andrew Whiteside himself acknowledged in his earlier address. Some people felt the programme's presence on the youth-oriented TV2, rather than "charter-channel" TV1, was hindering its ability to cover issues in a challenging way, whereas others thought a better balance could be achieved between current affairs and documentary on the current show, with the programme's lack of immediacy coming under fire. Others felt a true liaison with the community was lacking, with a "closed house" mentality prevailing at QN's production company, Livingstone Productions. Should other producers be given the opportunity to tender for production of the show? This seemed to be the conclusion reached at the end of the day, with Holden committing to the preparation of a programme brief that would be released soon. Holden drew an analogy between QN and TVNZ's recent decisions regarding "Maggie's Garden Show" and childrens programme "What Now", which has seen two long-running programme formats put out for tender. It would seem to be a case of "ideas this way, please" for who can make the best "Queer Nation". Whoever wins out in the end - and let's hope that someone does - it will remain to be seen whether they can put NZ On Air's money where their mouths are. Chris Banks - 11th November 2003    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Tuesday, 11th November 2003 - 12:00pm

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