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Spinning yarns, spinning plates: inside The Spinoff's rapid evolution

The Spinoff's founder and managing editor Duncan Greive has gone from two to over 20 employees in just a few years as the "mid-shelf red wine of New Zealand journalism" has grown and evolved. He discusses the whirlwind time the team has had of late after moving into the television realm, launching another new section and doing the grown-up business thing and relocating to a bigger office. 

Duncan Greive

When StopPress visits the new office of The Spinoff it’s all go – a construction site of mud and scaffold outside while inside writers type furiously, and in one corner Ātea editor Leonie Hayden is filming a segment for the next episode of The Spinoff TV.

Moving to a nearby café to chat, The Spinoff’s founder and managing editor, Duncan Greive, says The Spinoff TV is challenging but really exciting.

"It feels good right now, it feels hard but it’s not meant to be easy, you learn a hell of a lot.”

The Spinoff TV, which premiered on 22 June, is funded by $700,000 from NZ on Air, but both The Spinoff and Three made contributions in kind as part of the deal. There are 16 episodes, each 23-minutes long and hosted by senior writer Alex Casey and Hayden. Episodes can also be viewed on ThreeNow. 

It originally premiered at 9.45pm on Three on a Friday evening, following The Graham Norton Show and 7 Days, but last week has been pushed back an hour to the 10.45pm slot.

As explained online prior to the launch, it features content from the week already seen on The Spinoff, Newshub and social channels alongside exclusive content.

As Greive says, there’s a “genuine diversity” across The Spinoff TV in terms of both content and the people making it.

“It’s much younger people than who are normally making television, gay people, people of colour, hosted by two women – it’s the first time since 1995 that there has been a show in New Zealand hosted by two women – these things aren’t nothing and it’s all about New Zealand, whereas other shows will cover the stuff everyone else is covering.”

He says the process of making the show has an increasingly familiar rhythm to it, with meetings early in the week to figure out the programme and initial rundown of the show, then heading into Three’s studios on a Friday morning to package it up with its hosts.

“The third week was the week where everyone involved was starting to understand what their role was, and when I looked across all the individual pieces and the show as a whole and was like this is what we were shooting for.”

While Greive is open about the fact there's not much television experience between The Spinoff employees working on the show, those involved in production have plenty ­­– such as producers Great Southern, network executive MediaWorks chief news officer Hal Crawford, and producer Adrian Stevanon who has previously worked on The Hui.  

 Greive says in a typical week The Spinoff TV hosts are linking between what might be eight or nine different pieces of content which vary in length from 15 seconds to three to four minutes.

“It’s got to all fit together, go out on time, it might have 20 people on screen. Everything needs to be legally approved by our lawyer and seen by Three’s, including the script which is partly improvised. All of that needs to be output in one format for different mediums - it’s so much compared to a typical show but that’s the intention and what we pitched. Part of our pitch to NZ on Air was we should consider a view a view a view [Youtube, Facebook etc] – nowhere is inferior output. If you look across everything I think we’re probably generating really good value for money.”

Greive says he wants The Spinoff TV to have its own product and own voice.

“There’s no point for NZ on Air and ultimately the New Zealand taxpayer funding this thing if it's effectively replicating stuff which is already happening.”

In terms of finding that voice, that’s not a finished process “but hopefully we’ll get there”.

With The Spinoff known for its informative and entertaining source of commentary on everything from pop culture to politics, surprisingly, Greive says moving from the internet into television was not always the intention.

“We’ve always been an ambitious business ... I probably thought around this time [almost four years in] we would be starting to look at launching in other countries or sites.”

He namechecks Eating Media Lunch, Moon TV and Back of the Y as three shows he admires and it would want to get to, but appreciates it's nowhere there yet and obviously, it’s a different era with different values – "but we’ve got 16 episodes".

"I think we'll continue finding our voice and, in a lot of ways, outside of the intense glare of primetime, we can lean into this weirdness to be even more ourselves.”

Learning as you go

Two years ago, Greive “famously wrote a story” titled Good news: TV is dead, and how times have changed. Now, he’s talking about learnings from making a TV show while admitting he may have spoken too soon.

“Making television is much harder than it looks. There will probably be a bunch of people who’ve made TV who I’ve criticized in the past who will be like ‘duh and you should have known that before now’ but I still don’t think you get any excuses for that,” says Greive.

“The complexities of delivering a show and all of the moving parts that need to be considered – it’s not a podcast with pictures, it’s not a print story read out to a camera –the amount that’s riding on it in terms of legal risk, there’s a whole lot going on. We would have done it regardless, and we probably wouldn’t have done much differently. It’s a complex beast and we’re very lucky to have to have Great Southern and others behind us.”

To celebrate the first episode, the team threw a viewing party, booking a venue close to the new office, inviting between 70 and 80 people who have worked on the show and friends of the site.

He says he loves the way the whole of The Spinoff team has embraced the making of the show.

“That was something I was worried about: what if it develops into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ with the TV people being the pretty new things and the writers less? But I haven’t felt that at all. I felt that there has been a remarkable amount of goodwill towards it.”

And it’s not the only television show The Spinoff team is working on. It's also in advanced post-production on a second show for Lightbox.

Greive can't divulge any more, but says it was likely to come out in late August/early September.

“It’s a very different kind of thing [to The Spinoff TV], it’s a variation on a documentary but is super funny. It was shot over summer, so it was really our first go and I’m proud as hell.”

While it’s been a thrilling time, it hasn’t been without drawbacks for the site, and Greive says the traffic has suffered over the last 10 weeks (over the past year, however, it has risen from just over 600,000 users per month to 840,000). 

“I have no doubt that’s in large part because we’re making a show. The commercial side is fine, we’re meeting all those obligations. It’s more you lose Alex [Casey] for two to three days writing for the show, lose Mads [Madeline Chapman] to make things, lose Leonie [Hayden] – there is a cost to that, you can’t replace people with such strong a voice, but we do have awesome contributors.”

Talking numbers, Greive says the first week saw The Spinoff TV rated “incredibly well” while the second week did see some drop-off. According to the New Zealand Heraldthe show lost half its target audience (viewers aged 25-54) in the first three weeks, dropping from 73,000 to 35,000. 

However, he doesn't seem disheartened by it.

“I have a theory. We are a massively Auckland dominant site, it’s where we started and a lot of what we write about is based here, 50 percent of our New Zealand based audience is here, and our second episode went live while both The Blues and The Warriors were playing after a long break.”

When StopPress spoke to Greive three weeks into the show, at that point it had no reviews, something he was surprised by.

However, since then, reviews from The New Zealand HeraldNewsroom and Stuff have been popping up, of which few have been favourable, particularly in light of NZ on Air’s massive investment in the show.

Three announced last week The Spinoff TV would be moving to 10.45pm and would be replaced in its 9.45pm timeslot by new episodes of Fail Army.  

A MediaWorks spokesperson told The New Zealand Herald that it remains committed to the show and intends to keep it in the new timeslot for the remainder of its run.

"We are moving it to a later time where it can consolidate and develop a dedicated audience," said MediaWorks.

In response to the time change, Greive told Stuff initially the news came as a bit of a blow.

He was telling his staff to take the news as an opportunity to become the "weird, funny, sharp, biting, late night show" that they had set out to be.  

"I think we'll continue finding our voice and, in a lot of ways, outside of the intense glare of primetime, we can lean into this weirdness to be even more ourselves.”

Building a small-ish media empire

The Spinoff TV is not the only recent addition with a food section also welcomed by the team. Leading the way as editor is Alice Neville, who was most recently deputy editor of Cuisine magazine.

Greive says the food section, like the TV show, wasn’t always in the works, but was partnerships editor Simon Day’s “passion project”.

“It’s a credit to Simon. I said to him from the start, if you want to pursue this then make the deal happen because I couldn’t see it.”

He says the partnerships set-up for the new section – with Freedom Farms and Fine Wine Delivery Company equally invested – is quite a unique thing for The Spinoff. Visit the site and you'll normally see one sponsor for each section, for example, the parents section is sponsored by Flick Electric and the science section by The MacDiarmid Institute. 

Greive says most of its key partners have been with the media company for years, but suggests a couple may change in form a bit in the future.

“Hopefully the secret of our financial stability and sustainability is that we learnt the hard way early on that if you open something and expect partners to come they don’t necessarily see what they’re providing, whereas when you say we can’t do this without you – and very sincerely you mean that – then they feel a much greater connection to the work.”

The Spinoff Bulletin is another new addition for 2018, a daily collation of news stories from around the country, compiled by Alex Braae and sponsored by Vector. As of this week, it has 7693 subscribers.

In the recent Media issue of NZ Marketing, Toby Manhire said the aim of the bulletin was to fill the void that has been contracted out to social media.

Role changes

Among the new additions to content, 2018 has also seen editorial changes for The Spinoff, with Greive announcing in January he would be moving to managing editor, while Manhire took over as editor and Simon Day become partnerships editor.  

“I was trying to do two full-time jobs," explains Greive. "The biggest chunk of my time [at the moment] is being involved with the TV show plus this time of year because a lot of the big corporates have end of financial year and new budgets coming on there’s a lot of maintenance of existing partnerships and pitching for new ones.”

​Manhire and Day have taken to their roles, says Greive, both doing "a lot better" than he was.

And they're doing so in a new office, after moving from Britomart to Morningside.

Greive says there was a need for more space to shoot things for the TV show and the team was growing, with 10 or so additional people helping on the TV show alongside The Spinoff's roughly 20 employees.

“It was an amazing place to start for our first three-and-a-half-years, but it was about conveying to the staff and our clients that we’re playing for keeps and we’re a serious thing now.”

The thing he likes best is there's a whole bunch of young people who are all getting a shot at something.

“They’re really grasping it with both hands and running like hell with it, they’re looking out for each other and it’s quite beautiful and touching to witness. Irrespective if this is judged a success – and if The Spinoff goes on to make loads more TV or no more TV – I think they will all have great careers.”

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