Jane Wrightson is the longtime Chief Executive of public broadcasting agency NZ On Air, which allocates money to a wide variety of local content, from TV and radio to digital media and website NZ On Screen.
Hastings born and bred, Wrightson later began a “mandatory” BA (in English Literature) at Victoria University. She passed “with spectacularly average marks”. She was starting to watch a lot of film and television; her already Catholic screen tastes were expanding from Coronation Street and documentaries, to Absolutely Fabulous, rom-coms and American arthouse films. After a year running an employment agency, Wrightson joined Television New Zealand at the age of 22.
Over the next decade at TVNZ, she did time in programme purchasing, industrial-relations, local production sponsorship, and as executive assistant to Programme Controller Des Monaghan. Her final 18 months at TVNZ was spent as Head of Commissioned Programmes, the then-fledgling department that commissioned work from independents. The job “was to be a conduit, weeding out independent programmes that the producers offered me, and referring them up to my masters”, then lobbying for good time-slots for the finished shows.
In late 1990, keen for a change, Wrightson applied to become Chief Film Censor. A longtime battleground for opposing points of view, censorship was then an especially hot potato. The Government was considering combining censorship of films, home videos and publications into one body, while a decision to introduce a six year limit had called time for previous censor Arthur Everard; some argued he had been specifically legislated out of office.
Aged 32, Wrightson became the youngest New Zealander to become censor, and the first woman in the main role. Her TVNZ commissioning job, she told writer David Cohen, gave her valuable experience in coping with unpopularity. “It seems to be that no matter what TVNZ does, we’re going to get trashed for it.”
Wrightson told The Evening Post the new role would “be the making or breaking of me as a professional person”; years later she described it as a job with “the capacity to get you in a lot of high-profile trouble”. Continuing moves by the censor’s office to consultation and inviting feedback at screenings, she was keen to hear not only from pressure groups like Women Against Pornography, but the views of the “silent majority”.
A keen believer in the censor's role of providing a “consumer advice service”on the type of material people were likely to see, Wrightson preferred where possible to reclassify a film, rather than cut material. She banned three titles, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer being the most high profile. Wrightson argued that the film's sub-text was taking “vicarious pleasure in killing and the objectification of women”. After an appeal her decision was upheld.
1994 proved a year of change. Wrightson finished an MBA with distinction, and began an eight year stint reviewing movies for Wellington's Evening Post. It was also the year that a new, overarching censorship body finally began. Wrightson put her “hat in the ring” for the role of chief censor of film and literature, but Australian Kathryn Paterson got the job.
Instead Wrightson joined NZ On Air for her first stint, beating 50 applicants to become the organisation's new television programme manager, and soon after, deputy chief executive. Each year she was responsible for administering $50 million worth of TV funding, and making recommendations to the NZ On Air board over which programme proposals should be approved. Among the productions airing in this period were James Belich's high-rating The New Zealand Wars, arts strand Work of Art, Costa Botes and Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver, and Gaylene Preston’s documentary War Stories. Keen to increase the amount of local content in primetime, Wrightson was also exploring the implications posed for local content by cable and satellite television.
In 1999 Wrightson left NZ On Air to join SPADA (Screen Production and Development Association). During her four years as chief executive, membership of the lobbying organisation grew by a third. Alongside Onfilm publisher Reg Birchfield she launched a yearly SPADA/Onfilm Industry Champion award, and designed a detailed local content quota model which was presented to then Broadcasting Minster Marian Hobbs. Despite being an election promise by the incoming Government, local content quotas were ultimately rejected after heavy opposition from broadcasters and officials.
Many in the industry were surprised when she left in 2003 to head complaints body the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Unimpressed by a 100-page BSA ruling on John Campbell's Corngate interview with Helen Clark, some broadcasters had complaints of their own about the board's supposed lack of broadcast experience. TVNZ Chief Executive Ian Fraser argued that Wrightson was held in high regard by broadcasters “because she knows what it's like on our side of the fence. She'll be good with the relationship stuff.”
In a Herald article published soon after she began, Wrightson defended the BSA, and argued the organisation was essentially “the appeal mechanism” if the public had no joy when they complained to a broadcaster about a TV or radio broadcast. Less than a quarter of complaints to the authority were upheld: “because broadcasters, in general, act responsibly”. The authority's existence encouraged broadcasters “to stay on their toes and to remind themselves continually of the incomparable potential of electronic media to harm as well as inform and entertain”. Listening to board member discussions, Wrightson often heard questions asked over whether a particular programme was "in the public interest, or merely of interest to the public”.
In 2007 she began in the top job as chief executive at NZ On Air. Representatives from the country's Writers and Directors Guilds welcomed the arrival of someone with a wealth of screen industry experience. Wrightson told Onfilm that she “couldn't pass up” the opportunity; she argued the challenge would be ensuring that in an “ever more crowded broadcasting environment” NZ On Air's funding “makes a difference, is leveraged where possible, and is concentrated in areas of most benefit to NZ audiences”.
Wrightson compares the “unique” system of television funding under NZ On Air to a three-legged stool, where the respective legs are the maker of the show, the television channel screening it, and NZ On Air as the major funder. Although each leg of the stool is important, “none has absolute power”.
In deciding which television programmes to back, the organisation tries “to fund good and original ideas, but to mitigate the risk. We are fairly agnostic in our tastes and like to see a diversity of voice. We have a good hit rate.”
She is proud to have helped create the Platinum Fund, which backs more ambitious dramas and documentaries, to have helped reinvigorate television drama, and to have developed a digital strategy that moved NZ On Air into cross-platform thinking and added digital media to the range of content and services that enjoy public funding.
Wrightson has also done a number of years as a board member on national swimming and netball organisations, and is a trustee of the Digital Media Trust, which oversees NZ On Screen and sister site AudioCulture.
'Jane Wrightson: On 25 years of NZ On Air' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Uploaded 4 March 2015. Accessed 4 March 2015
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
NZ On Air website. Accessed 4 March 2015
Jane Wrightson, 'TV and radio watchdog an incentive to behave' – The NZ Herald, 17 October 2003
Peter Calder, 'Balancing scales of censorship' (Interview) – The NZ Herald, 13 December 1990, page 2, section 2
David Cohen, ‘Sense and Censorship’ (Interview) - The Evening Post, 15 December 1990, page 31
John Drinnan, 'BSA appears to raise its standards' – National Business Review, 4 July 2003
Stacy Gregg, 'Girls on Film' (Interview) – More magazine, June 1991, page 48
Jeremy Hansen, 'Bringing the watchdog to heel' – The NZ Herald, 27 September 2003
Melanie Haycock, ‘Banning last resort for retiring film censor’ - The Press, 23 April 1994
Chris Moore, ‘Right behind home-grown television’ (Interview) - The Evening Post (TV Week lift out) 23 May 1994, page 3
Alastair Morrison, 'Portrait of censorship' – The Dominion, 7 July 1992, page 7
Joseph Romanos, 'Life behind the screen' (Interview) – The Wellingtonian, 20 May 2010, page 12
Rosemary Vincent, 'Dangerous, Disgusting or just plain YUK!' (Interview) – New Zealand Woman's Weekly, 18 November 1991, page 34
Philip Wakefield, 'Wrightson in the hot seat' (Interview) – Onfilm, February 1991
NZPA, ‘Censor doubts film’s rating’ - The Press, 14 May 1994
’Local drama passion of funding chief’ - The NZ Herald, 28 April 1984
'TV executive new film censor' – The Evening Post, 11 December 1990
'Industry News: Wrightson Q&A’ (Interview) – Onfilm, December 2006