Turning NZ On Screen

Brenda Leeuwenberg, Project Director, NZ On Screen.
NZ On Screen Project Director Brenda Leeuwenberg talks about how the NZ On Air funded website sta


A year ago NZ On Screen launched its online collection of New Zealand television and films with classics like Gloss, Spot On, Billy T and Patu!

Project Director Brenda Leeuwenberg talks about how the NZ On Air funded website started, securing and digitising iconic NZ titles, and highlights from its first year online.

The site now has more than 650 titles, commentary about their place in New Zealand's screen culture history and interviews with the makers. 

The Big Idea Editor Cathy Aronson asks Leeuwenberg about the challenges of setting up the website, the team and partners who keep it going, measuring success and future plans.

Happy birthday! How does it feel to be a year old?

Thanks! Actually, it feels fantastic. Our team is very proud to be working on such a great project, and to have exceeded our goals for expanding the site in this first year online. We’ve had awesome feedback from people and feel like we really are creating and nurturing a cultural taonga for NZ.

Tell us a bit about NZ On Screen.

It’s a website which is fully funded by NZ On Air. An online showcase of NZ television, film and music video, NZ On Screen reflects NZ identity through the years as it has been represented on our screens.

The site has over 650 titles, as well as more than 150 music videos and over 300 profiles of people in the screen industry, and 50 interviews with people working in front of and behind the camera. More content is added all the time. Significant titles have revealing background pieces written by a key person involved in the production.

Most of the programmes are available in full length, with some as excerpts or trailers. All the content is free to view for anyone with decent broadband.

What does your role as Project Director include?

I’ve been with the project from the beginning. My role was initially to get the website defined, designed and developed (well, to manage the agencies doing that work) and to build the team that collates and creates the content.

Now the site is up and running it’s more about keeping things going – keeping the content fresh and interesting, building audiences – niche and broad, managing the PR and marketing, keeping the reporting and funding on track and building relationships with screen industry groups and people throughout NZ.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve been around the internet since back in the dark ages of the early 90s – the usenet and Netscape 1 days. I was involved in building some of the first commercial websites in NZ (ironically the very first NZ On Air website back in 1996!) and have been working on the agency side of web projects since then. Before this job I was working with an internet agency in Amsterdam as an account director for global marketing clients like Sony Ericsson, Speedo and Sony Europe. So this is my first foray into client-side – and it’s great!

When and how did you become involved?

When I returned to NZ in 2007 I got a job at NZ On Air working with Clare O’Leary (digital strategist for NZ On Air at the time). I was brought in to help define the project that was to be a key part of NZ On Air’s digital strategy. The NZ On Screen Trust was established and tasked with creating the site, NZ On Air provided the initial funding. I was appointed as manager for the Trust, to run the project and make it happen.

The job became much broader – setting up the office, getting everything running, building the team. It was exciting – kind of like running a startup, but without the worry of where your next dollar is coming from.

What keeps you involved?

I didn’t expect to still be involved. I’m more of a ‘make things happen’ than a ‘keep things running’ person. But it’s still interesting and challenging – the challenges are different than leading up to launch, but they’re still there.

I’ve become a lot more focused on the PR and marketing – and particularly exploring ways in which social media can help build our audience and awareness, without pissing everyone off with marketing messages.

There have been a number of releases of new functionality to the site in this year, and we’re constantly tweaking and refining to make the best user experience.

The team is also awesome. We are small but perfectly formed unit, they’re great people and I love working with them.

What is your personal highlight from NZ On Screen’s first year?

Realising that we’ve created something really special. The feedback that we’ve got from people has been universally positive and that has been a huge positive for me. I know that you put something out there on the internet and you’re open for any kind of reaction. We’ve had nothing but good feedback and praise – that is fantastic.

Also I have discovered so much wonderful content through this project. When I have spare time I voluntarily go to NZ On Screen and watch something – I never imagined the richness and diversity and fabulousness of the programmes that NZ has made over the years.

Can you briefly tell us how NZ On Screen came to be – from conception to inception?

The idea for a website had been kicking around NZ On Air for a while, but Clare O’Leary shaped it into reality when she was appointed Digital Strategist for NZ On Air. I was brought in to help define the site and establish the requirements for the project. We spent a bit of time talking to the folks from australianscreen.com.au and built our concept from there.

NZ On Air provided funding of 1.2 million to the NZ On Screen Trust – this money covered everything, the website design and development, the team, the office and setup, the rent, the sourcing, digitizing, writing etc. It was tight, but it was guaranteed funding, so we could work with that.

The site was almost a year in development, which is quite an achievement when I look back at what was involved!
Who led the project, was it NZ On Air, or a concept pitched and supported by them?

The NZ On Screen Trust leads the project, with funding from NZ On Air. It was their concept originally, but not something they could do in-house.

The work for designing and building the site was put to tender, and won by Chrometoaster and 3months.com. Chrometoaster continues to be the design lead for the project, with development and support now provided by YouDo Ltd.

The NZ On Screen Trust is made up of Edie Moke (chair), Robin Scholes, Roger Horrocks, Russell Brown, Teresa Shreves and Jane Wrightson. They keep us on track!

What were some of the challenges to get it going?

The biggest challenge was figuring out what we could realistically achieve, given the grandest of visions. We didn’t know how easy or hard it would be to get the programmes and films made available to us, whether we’d get full length material, what we needed to do to get it online etc.

Starting from scratch with a project like this is a fantastic opportunity, but it was also a major challenge! Not only did we have to establish what it was we were doing, we had to sell it to people without knowing exactly what it would be! The challenge was to establish credibility and proof of concept, particularly given the project’s public funding. Having a public good mandate is great, but it’s not enough: our goal was and continues to be: create a place where people can get excited and inspired by the magnificent range of screen content created in NZ.

Was it hard to get clearance for some of the titles? What did the negotiations involve?

For each title on the site we have had to get a license agreement signed by the copyright holder(s). This is rarely easy (although easier now we actually have a site) and often time-consuming. Finding the right people, contacting them, explaining the project and why we want their titles, getting them to return the license agreements – all takes a lot of time.

Once we have the agreement we then need to source the best version of the material, get it digitized, render and compress it for the web, write about it, track down details of credits and other relevant points and find images.

Some titles are harder than others – the internet wasn’t around when a lot of this material was produced, so internet rights were never considered in contract agreements. For example, anything with archival footage needs a whole other set of rights resolved, and drama series from the 80s like Gloss require us to get the approval of every actor who appears in the show before we can put it online.

How many titles do you have now?

Right now we have 618 TV and film titles, 155 music videos, 324 profiles and 50 ScreenTalk interviews.

What are some of your personal favorites?

Oddly I enjoy the programmes from the 80s the most (well I find it odd!): the About Face series, Revolution, E Tipu E Rea series …
But also the collection of NHNZ documentaries are mind-blowingly good (such as Under the Ice, and Kea Mountain Parrot), and the docos about Janet Frame and Hone Tuwhare and Fat Freddys Drop.

I dip into new things all the time and am rarely disappointed.

Who curates the Maori content on the site, and who did you consult?

We work with Whai Ngata as the Maori curator for the site. Whai worked with TVNZ for a long time and has a deep knowledge of Maori screen culture. He has been instrumental in clearing the Tangata Whenua series for us to put on site for example.

To mark Matariki in June, Whai curated a collection of significant Maori television and film titles for us. This added 12 excellent Maori titles to the site, but there will be more coming.

What feedback have you had from the industry – including the original creators?

The feedback from industry has been great – on the whole they appreciate their work being given a new life and reaching new audiences online. NZ On Screen helps to celebrate and promote people and programmes, and this has been well received by the industry. We have countless examples of titles that have had the dust blown off them and that have received a ‘second life’ courtesy of the site.

There has been some nervousness about impacting their potential sales, however if something is for sale we link to wherever they want us to so that people can buy it. We actually get queries all the time from people who want to buy programmes that are available in full for free on NZ On Screen. NZ On Screen helps to promote programmes and support sales.

We have reached a point where we get “why isn’t my work on your site” queries, which is exactly what we want.

Receiving the Qantas Media Award for Best Entertainment site, and being a finalist for Best Website Design was also strong praise from our peers.

Do you think NZ On Screen has found new audiences for classic stories, or is it just nostalgia?

I see a lot of the documentaries gaining new audiences, they are tremendously valuable to schools and students. Some of the programmes that only screened once or twice on TV or at a festival are now being watched regularly. A lot of the niche content in particular is getting new audiences, such as the documentary about John Britten which continues to be linked to and discussed in forums all over the world, and has had more than 30,000 viewers, or the 1964 archival footage of Peter Snell which seems to be inspiring runners everywhere! 

But nostalgia is indeed a big winner – Play School, After School, Count Homogenized – also Gloss, Gliding On, Close To Home, Billy T – those programmes that everyone watched and then talked about at work or at school the next day.. As comments on the site testify, people are enjoying revisiting watercooler conversations or remembering treasured programmes, many of which haven’t been able to be seen outside of an archive for years. 

Who are some of your partners and what role do they play?

We work with Archives NZ, the NZ Film Archive, TVNZ Archives, the NZ Film Commission, Te Papa, National Library to source a lot of the material on the site.

We work with TVNZ, TV3, Maori Television to include material that they hold the license for.

We get great publicity through Onfilm, The Big Idea, NZ Live, Te Ara, Te Papa … many websites who reference programmes on NZ On Screen. We provide reciprocal links and are developing really useful partnerships, eg. for our Nature collection, the animals, regions and subjects found in each video can be enjoyed on NZ On Screen then people can follow links to Te Ara or Department of Conservation to find out more.

The ScreenTalk interviews are a great resource (The Big Idea is a no1 fan). Why did NZ On Screen decide  to make this creative commons, how many websites are using them?

Our approach to this material is that it’s publicly funded and should be made available to as broad an audience as possible. I’m not sure how many sites are using them but the YouTube versions get a lot of views.

Did you have any issues making it creative commons?

Not at all. We decided that the material we create – the biographies, the backgrounds, synopses and ScreenTalk interviews – should be out there for people to use. The only thing that isn’t Creative Commons is the rest of the video content and images on the site.

How does NZ On Screen measure success (traffic, users, content share etc)?

We avidly follow our stats and this forms a large part of our success. We have around about 1,000 unique visitors/day at the moment. Around 70% of our visitors are from NZ.  There are odd spikes, like a recent referral from boingboing.net sent 13,000 viewers in one day to an NHNZ documentary about Kea! 

We have inward links from many websites and blogs. There are numerous conversations out there on blogs and forums about the NZ On Screen content – which is fantastic to see.

We have goals to do with numbers of titles and people and interviews that we’ll put online. We have our internal objectives to do with selecting key iconic and significant titles and getting them up there.

How many staff do you have (full time and contractors)?

We have just two full-time staff and six contractors who work 3-4 days/week. Besides me the regular team includes Irene Gardiner (Content Director), Paul Ward (Editor), Kim Baker (Rights Executive), Kylie Buck (Content Coordinator), Catherine Juniot (Legal Executive), Ian Pryor (Writer), Alex Backhouse (Editor).

ScreenTalk interviews are created by Andrew Whiteside, James Coleman and Ian Pryor.

We also have a team of freelance writers who create the profiles, programme backgrounds and details for the titles.

We also have a content panel, made up of experienced industry representatives, who meet every couple of months to identify and prioritise content for the site.

What are some of the latest additions to the site?

We recently added forums, which we realize is quite a challenge to set ourselves. It’s a lot more difficult to engage a community than we anticipated! However we believe it’s important to make it possible to start a dialogue about a title, or an issue in the industry – it will grow.

In terms of content it’s been quite a coup to get iconic soaps Gliding On and Close to Home – we’re also working on more Gloss. A whole selection of classic 80s music videos went online recently too.

New titles are added almost every day. To further showcase the material on the site we create collections – the most successful so far being Sheep!! Some of the collections, like Sheep and Snow, are topical, while others, like the Peter Hayden-curated Nature collection and Whai Ngata-curated Matariki Collection, are important ‘landmark’ collections that will be enduringly resonant.

What is NZ On Screen’s big idea for 2010?

Not so much one big idea as continuing to grow and develop. It’s been great getting all the nostalgic classics like Gloss, Billy T, Close to Home, Count Homogenized, Spot On, Play School, and so on, on the site, but there are still some of those popular favourites that we haven’t yet cleared and sourced. We want to get the old music shows C’Mon, The Grunt Machine and Radio with Pictures. We want Lyn of Tawa and Fred Dagg to be represented on the site. And there are important early dramas and comedies like Pukemanu and Joe and Koru still to come.

At the other end of the spectrum there are still significant documentaries we need to add to the site, as well as other culturally important titles such as early Pacific Films’ productions, and further episodes of Landmarks and the Governor.

There are also still lots of industry people who don’t yet feature in our Profiles and ScreenTalk sections, so these areas we'll be continually being built up as well, so that eventually everyone is recorded for posterity.

We’ll continue to curate featured collections on the site. There’s one on the late great Bruno Lawrence planned for his birthday in February, as well as comedy and music collections for later in the year.

As well as adding to our content, we will also be constantly freshening and fine-tuning the functionality of the site. We are working on being able to have some of the material embeddable. And we will be working on our PR and marketing - there’s no point in the site existing if people don’t know about it.

There will always be more to do. Some of the titles that are currently featured in excerpt form will come out of license periods and we will be able to feature them in full. We’re always trying to increase our full-length content.

The aim is to become as fully-rounded a service as we possibly can be - celebrating and supporting the New Zealand screen industry, but also giving all of these wonderful programmes back to the New Zealand public to use and enjoy. We want people to visit the site and be wowed and moved by the sheer range and quality of screen content NZ has produced. It’s already an impressive showcase, and we’re working every day to make it better.

Written by

Cathy Aronson

3 Nov 2009


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