Stedman’s early career is rooted in the Dunedin world of theatre and the nascent TV industry where local station manager Hal Weston made the shrewd decision not to compete head-on with Wellington and Auckland. Instead, Weston decided his Dunedin unit would concentrate on high-volume, fast turn-around production. Children’s shows were a natural niche.
The young Stedman quickly sussed that the then controller of programmes in Wellington would accept pitches for good ideas. He went on to produce over 1000 programmes covering content from sport to children’s to classical music.
This provided a serious training ground for his later career. In 1978, Stedman was appointed executive producer at the Natural History Unit. He crossed the Tasman to head up training at Australia’s Film and Television School and segued across to the ABC as head of features. Stedman eventually came back full-circle to the Natural History Unit in 1987 where he helped wrestle it from under TVNZ’s wing and into the arms of Fox.
“People were surprised, I think, at the Fox/News Corp link,” he acknowledges. “But there were people inside Fox who we had known for a very long time and were good people.”
To Stedman, the difference between working for Fox and TVNZ was like night and day.
“The board of TVNZ knew nothing really about the industry and therefore didn’t, and wouldn’t, make decisions. Whereas the people we reported to when we went to Fox absolutely understood the industry, they were the industry, and so the decisions we got were extraordinarily fast and we were just told to get on with it.”
As Stedman puts it, the handbrake of mindless bureaucracy was gone.
“I remember a time when we had the desperate need for some money to be spent on the place. To make capital expenditure under TVNZ, we had to write these bloody papers for the board – the papers would go up and the board would come back: ‘We want more information’.”
Stedman says TVNZ’s requests for detailed information were a way of not making decisions.
“So we went for years without anything, we were still working with equipment that anywhere else in the world was in museums, it was that archaic.
“Then we became part of Fox and capital expenditure was approved in a matter of weeks. And we were given an immense amount of freedom, just to get on and grow the company. It was just chalk and cheese.”
Meanwhile, the global market for natural history programming was peaking and Stedman realised he needed to diversify the company’s portfolio.
“I remember going to some of the international natural history events and being stunned at the amount of money that was floating around and the amount of production that was going on,” he says. “People could not get enough wildlife – it was extraordinary.
“And we were right down the bottom of that foodchain – in the UK we were treated with mild amusement. They were very condescending, the Poms, about the idea that someone from New Zealand wanted to have a go internationally: which was actually quite good, because there’s nothing like a bit of condescension to put fuel in your bloody system.
“So we got a bit of that action but I remember thinking, ‘This could change, and we’re a one-trick pony. If people wake up one morning and decide they don’t want any more wildlife in their schedules, we’re stuffed!’”
That’s where Stedman’s thinking around adaptability kicked in.
“We looked at what our core skills were and we knew we didn’t have many of them. One of them was the ability to film in very specialised places – you know, we could film animals at the tops of mountains, we could film underwater, we could film inside sharks and record in vitro cannibalism; we could film in just about any place on earth and in any situation.
“So the question was, ‘Okay, what else uses that?’ ‘Well, adventure. Travel. Science’.”
The Natural History Unit started broadening out its base. It was one of the first companies in the world to see the shift in the market and react to it.
“And, as we thought it might, the natural history market did contract,” says Stedman. “It contracted significantly and many of the condescending English companies that had been so amused at our attempt to have a go on the world stage disappeared; some of the big companies in the UK and in the United States couldn’t adapt and collapsed.”
Meanwhile, the Natural History Unit continued to grow. Demand for natural history programmes declined and later re-emerged in a different form.
“The voice-of-god, David Attenborough-style documentary, which had been pretty much the standard film that everybody wanted to make, became less popular in the United States and a far wider range of approaches to storytelling was developed as a result,” says Stedman.
Do unto others
Stedman laughs when asked to describe his approach to managing people.
“Yeah, look, I don’t know what I’m like to work for, actually, because no-one will be honest with me. They all come in tugging their forelocks and going, ‘Yes sir’, ‘No sir’.
“There was something I once read years ago that really resonated with me: ‘Management are a resource of those managed.’ My job as I saw it – and still see it – was to create the best possible environment I could – and can – in order for people to make terrific films. That’s really my job. It’s pretty simple in that sense, and I think if you take that approach, then you’ll probably do okay.”
Stedman acknowledges that, especially in the early days, the fact that he was not only running the company but was also the executive producer of everything that went through the place really helped. It would have been “much, much harder”, he says, if he had not had a “reasonable amount” of experience in production.
“That said, I think we’ve got to be a wee bit careful that we don’t pretend tele-vision is some sort of magical industry that only people with great insight and understanding can manage. I say to the people here, ‘At the end of the day, we’re manufacturers, we’re manufacturing stories.’
“I think why we have succeeded where many other companies have failed is that right from the beginning we built an incredibly strong business foundation. So we had moved past that sense of a creative hobby wonderland to a place where the bottom line was important, budgets were important, delivery quality was important. One of our mantras is, ‘On time, on budget and always better than the client expects.’”
Film production, he points out, is an industry.
“And in that sense good management is important. The fact that I also had skills in production was immensely helpful but I do think some of the things that drive me forward in terms of management style are universal. It’s about respect, it’s about giving people freedom; there’s a whole lot of things that would apply to any industry.”
He underpins his thinking with an understanding that good management practice is based on a ‘do unto others’ approach. He has, he says, picked up little nuggets through his working life that are, in hindsight, quite significant.
“I remember when I was a producer, the then-station manager said, ‘You know, you can say anything to anybody about their performance, as long as you leave them with their self-respect.’ And I always remembered that. It was one of those little gems. It was about respecting others, and self-respect, and it was about helping people succeed as opposed to controlling people.
“A couple of the other things were the ability to say no, and the ability to change your mind. So many managers will make the decision and that’s it. Fred comes along the next day and says, ‘Hey look, I’ve discovered that…’ ‘I don’t care what you’ve discovered, I’ve made the decision!’ You know, new information – why wouldn’t you look at it? So that ability to change your mind and also to acknowledge you’re wrong is important. That really comes down to honesty.”
Right from the start, Stedman has shared information with staff.
“Everybody knew how bad it was or how good it was, because where there’s a lack of information, mistrust grows; and where there’s mistrust, all sorts of conspiracy theories fester – if there’s a vacuum, people start filling it.
“So from the very early days, everything was shared. Some people said, ‘You’re giving them a bit much information.’ But where’s the line? And the other thing is, if you say to people, ‘Look, I’m going to share this with you but please respect that it’s in confidence,’ they’ll respect that. I was never once let down. Ever. People respected the straight-forwardness and insight, and it never bit me in the bum.”
Back in 1987, when Stedman returned to New Zealand from a stint in Australia, he ended up managing the dual roles of executive producer of the Natural History Unit as well as director of production for TVNZ.
Charged with turning the Natural History Unit around, “because it really had got into a fair amount of old poo”, Stedman refused to opt for redundancies, reminding staff at his first meeting with them that they were all in the same boat and would either all survive or all go down together.
“I had a huge belief in the talent that was in Dunedin and my job was really to create a climate in which that talent could prosper and people could start making films,” he says.
“Part of that involved finding markets internationally, because I knew that the domestic market was not sufficient to rely on for our survival.”
Stedman says he was given a year to turn the company round. It took that long to start getting some traction.
“I’ve often talked about how there were three words that were really important during this period. One of them was ‘vision’, another was ‘belief’ and the third was ‘adaptability’.
“I had a vision that this group of people in Dunedin could stand tall on a world stage. I really, really believed that. So the vision was standing on the stage and the second thing was the belief they had the talent to do it.
“Belief’s really important, because without it the going gets a bit tough. If you don’t have belief, you’re going to fail.”
He likens his approach to climbing a mountain. “If you believe you can get to the top, you will,” he says, “even if it can be bloody difficult and at times you wonder how the hell you’re going to make the next step. But if you doubt you’re going to get to the top, you’re probably going to fall off. So belief is really, really important – unshakable belief in the talent here. And when I say ‘here’ I’m talking about Dunedin and New Zealand.”
Stedman’s third tenet – adaptability – kicked in as the traditional way of approaching wildlife documentaries started to change.
“That’s been one of the hallmarks of this company from then until the present day – that ability to constantly adapt to a changing world market.
“There was adaptability in terms of the approach to making films but also in terms of the people inside the organisation. For example, I remember when Neil Harraway, who has been here since day one, was the producer of a documentary about Antarctica called Under the Ice. He learnt to dive so he could go down with the underwater cameramen and do the lighting. So there’s that adaptability in how we work.
“You know, I expected people to be multi-skilled and to lead and to lean into anything that was needed at the time.” M
• This article is based on an interview with Michael Stedman that first appeared in NZ Management
magazine’s sister publication Onfilm.