NHNZ: Three decades of natural history

It's hard to imagine that a small natural history prodco based in Dunedin, New Zealand - population 118,600 - would become one of the world's largest factual producers and be on track to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. It's not often that any company lasts for 30 years these days, but NHNZ has managed to survive three decades of trends, new technology and devastating financial changes.
September 1, 2008

It’s hard to imagine that a small natural history prodco based in Dunedin, New Zealand – population 118,600 – would become one of the world’s largest factual producers and be on track to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. It’s not often that any company lasts for 30 years these days, but NHNZ has managed to survive three decades of trends, new technology and devastating financial changes.

So realscreen took this opportunity to delve deep with MD Michael Stedman and director of marketing and development Neil Harraway to find out just how they’ve managed to not only survive, but flourish.

NHNZ began life in 1977 as the Natural History Unit of Television New Zealand. With a four-man team and a focus on New Zealand-themed nature programs, directors Harraway and Robin Scholes, producer Graeme Wilson and cameraman Robert Brown turned over a small number of films, but the filmmakers were already showing their talent with award-winning programs like the 4 x 15-minute series Hidden Places.

At the time, Harraway had no idea what sort of longevity the unit would have. ‘It never crossed my mind. Then, I was just excited about finding these great conservation stories and telling them, and I knew there was plenty to tell,’ he says.

A year later the NHU welcomed Stedman onboard as the unit’s new head and production picked up with a Wild South brand that imbued a new sense of creativity into the natural history genre. (He was there until 1981, at which point he was wooed away to Australia.)

But more people came onboard with NHU and the company had success making popular series about New Zealand for New Zealand audiences. Ten years after Stedman had originally joined NHU, he was brought back from Australia by TVNZ’s director general Julian Mounter to revitalize and expand NHU into its own company. That’s when a key thing happened: the NHU turned to global subject matter and global audiences.

Stedman credits adaptability as one of the keys to NHNZ’s success, and the turn to international subjects was just another instance of adapting to the world market. ‘We had to learn how to work with a range of broadcasters around the world and, unlike being at the public broadcasters, we couldn’t make what we wanted. We had to make documentaries that would appeal to an international market.’

That made the Dunedin-based company a small fish in a very big pond. ‘When I first started going to the markets internationally,’ recalls Stedman, ‘it was ‘New Zealand? Where is New Zealand?” There were plenty of refusals before they heard a yes.

In 1997, the NHU changed names and became Natural History New Zealand after being bought by 20th Century Fox.

The state(s) of natural history

Back when the NHU started, the genre was fairly staid. Since then, there’s been a world of change in natural history. Summing up the early days of the genre, Stedman remembers, ‘I think anybody over 40 would remember the ‘voice of God’. There was only one style of documentary, typically the BBC style, with the ‘voice of God’ narrator. The assumption of that was there was one audience. That has changed completely.’

Since then, NHNZ has seen many natural history trends become wildly popular only to peter out. Harraway notes that blue-chip, ocean docs and conservation stories have all had their moment in the cyclical nature of the genre.

Sometimes trends make it difficult for NHNZ to conduct business. ‘In Europe right now there are two things making it harder for us to sell natural history coproductions,’ says Harraway. ‘One is they want to make more themselves within Germany and France, which is understandable. The other thing is there’s been a wave of popularity of zoo soaps which kind of peaked in America years ago, but they’re still very popular in Germany, so that is feeding their domestic desire for natural history. That makes it harder to do big global copros within.’

As a result, NHNZ turned to different markets for business. The company had to do more commissions out of America and France. A few broadcasters dropped off their natural history programming, like Canal+ and France 3, so that NHNZ worked with France 5 and ARTE. ‘We were doing more commissions because copro was harder and that was one way we adapted,’ says Harraway. ‘When the ocean stories fell off, we just went to other stories. Our slogan for a few years was ‘There’s a world of stories,’ and that’s the great thing about our background. We don’t just focus on one way of telling stories or one kind of story.’

To its credit, NHNZ also recognized that it was a good business decision to produce in genres beyond natural history like science, history and geology. ‘When natural history had that downturn we were pre-adapted for it, we were looking out [at other genres]. We’d been doing adventure as well so we were ready to go and we could see the nature market wouldn’t support a business on its own,’ says Harraway.

Stedman believes that assessing NHNZ’s skills, filming in specialized ways, storytelling, interpreting science and deciding to diversify are the reasons the company still stands. ‘Natural history was enormously popular and I looked ahead and believed that can’t last because television is an industry of fashion,’ he says. ‘With those core skills, you can apply them to medicine, science, history and engineering. We broadened out the base of the company so that natural history wasn’t our only output. For those who didn’t adapt to a changing market, they became extinct and disappeared.’


The advancement of technology has greatly assisted NHNZ, especially in matters of communication devices. The company went from existing pre-fax machine and global phones to becoming early adopters of the newest technology.

‘From color reversal film, not even negative in the early days, to hd and looking beyond with some trepidation to some super-HD and 3D, the technology has changed hugely,’ says Harraway. ‘There weren’t even satellite phones or faxes when we started, and now we email our rough cuts and fine cuts to broadcasters – the communications technology has helped us at the bottom of the world to be very efficient in world production.’

Technology was elemental in keeping NHNZ in contact with the rest of the world, but it also played a large role in the gambles the company took in innovative technology. Stedman credits NHNZ’s success to just that sort of innovation. ‘We were one of the first production companies in the world to have an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle), so we’ve done a lot of underwater work with them. We’ve also been involved with HD and infrared. What we’re keen to do is develop the technologies that help us tell the stories and we’re continuing to do that. 3D is something we’ll be doing this year.’

Regional specialization

In Asia particularly, NHNZ has done a commendable job of breaking down barriers between the Eastern and Western worlds. It began with a coproduction NHNZ did with Japan’s NHK called Wild Asia, the first series in which a Western production company broke from the normal approach of working with the pubcaster, meaning that the broadcaster simply contributed money. ‘We wanted to find a way to work together and move beyond a simple coproduction monetary transaction to an interaction of production people. We created a truly creative coproduction. I’m proud of that because we’re the first country in the world to have done that,’ says Stedman.

The prodco has also made great efforts in China, having worked on copros there for almost 10 years, and operating a Beijing office since 2002. ‘We’ve been prepared to take our time to understand and to learn and the results have been that we are currently the largest foreign producer of documentaries in China,’ says Stedman.

NHNZ became invested in China at a time when interest from the Western world was scarce. ‘I remember many years ago I went to a broadcaster with a documentary on China and they said they had a documentary on China, meaning they didn’t want a second one,’ he recalls. ‘Well [our doc] was a very different story. Ten years down the track, the number of documentaries being made on China is really quite staggering and there’s an enormous appetite from Western audiences on films about this unknown part of the world.’

At the moment, the prodco has 11 documentaries in production in China, which sweep across the genres NHNZ covers.

As for a drastically different part of the world, NHNZ claims to also have the most Antarctica footage in the world. ‘We were lucky because there is a small New Zealand effort there, which is also linked with the American effort and it’s only a plane ride away. It’s an amazing and different destination,’ Harraway says. ‘We capitalized on the fascination with that far frozen end of the earth and broadcasters wanted that story, particularly on PBS mainstay ‘Nature.’ It’s such a great place for science of all kinds. The views into space from the South Pole are only rivaled by the Hubble telescope, so there are lots of things that make it a great place for science stories.’

Educating a wildlife generation

Stedman also thought it was important to branch out into the next generation of filmmakers, establishing a relationship between NHNZ and Otago University in order to secure the future of natural history filmmaking. ‘About seven years ago, I saw a problem on the horizon and that was the lack of young filmmakers coming through who had the specializations that we needed. Many courses around the world turn out generalists, but there were very few that were focused on documentary and especially wildlife and science,’ he says.

The partnership with the university has created a boutique post-graduate course and its students come from all over the world. nhnz gets to choose from the graduates and currently has 14 working in the company.

Stedman says the future-proofing is paying off. ‘[The course] was really a result of most of the public broadcasters giving up on training and development, so as a commercial company, we saw this as a very important investment in tomorrow’s filmmakers,’ he says.

Says Harraway, ‘From the point of view of production, what it has given us is a great pool of talent, if you like, pre-selected. In a wider sense it’s been valuable to the natural history and science TV community everywhere because these are really bright and talented people.’

Dollar decline

Dealing with international projects means the company also suffers with international money woes. According to Stedman, the biggest crisis the prodco has faced is the decline of the US dollar. ‘We had foreign exchange issues over the last three years that were horrendous and we were able to tread our way through those. If we can survive that, we can survive anything. What it effectively did was rip 30% out of our income.’

NHNZ got through it by battening down the hatches and working smarter, says Stedman. ‘The profitability of the company went through the floor so to break even was regarded as being really good, whereas a lot of exporters and manufacturers around the world crashed and burned. The Kiwi dollar at the moment is at $69.78 and that’s a 20% to 30% drop in the last three or four months. We’re in good shape. Going into this year, beginning in July, we’ve got 96% of our slate greenlit. The order books are full, the dollar has fallen back considerably, and it’s looking good.’

Looking ahead

Stedman predicts a long future ahead for NHNZ if they keep telling good stories that resonate with the market, and remain adaptable and innovative. ‘People say ‘It might end.’ Sure it might end, but I don’t see an end anywhere in sight,’ he says.

Harraway believes the cyclical nature of television means that NHNZ should always have subjects upon which to draw. ‘They say after five years every old story becomes new again and there’s some truth in that. Certainly with HD there are stories to be revisited and told in new ways. [There will be] new knowledge in science or new technology or just new techniques for storytelling. People are inventive,’ he says.

As for Stedman’s own future, he may not be at NHNZ for the duration. ‘I think if the company is in good heart, I don’t think any managing director should hang along too long. The time to move on is when the company is strong and in good heart,’ he states. ‘So I’m not saying how many more years, but I think change is not a bad thing. What I’d love to do is spend more time as an executive producer because my whole background is production and that’s the part of the business that’s worth getting out of bed for.’

And it could be said that a passion for production is the third key to NHNZ’s success.

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