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Climbing the production ladder

  • Dana

From making coffee to producing some of New Zealand’s best loved shows, Dana Youngman is now Senior Entertainment Commissioner at Sky TV. We talked to her about her career and what she loves about her new role.

From making coffee to producing some of New Zealand’s best-loved shows, Dana Youngman is now Senior Entertainment Commissioner at Sky TV. We talked to her about her career and what she loves about her new role.

Dana was just 17, straight out of college, when she began a Certificate in TV Operations at Unitec in 1995. She went on to achieve the Diploma two years later – something she puts down to a combination of hard work, keen determination and making the most of every opportunity.  

“The Diploma was very self-driven and hands-on, which suited me. I was just so hungry to get a job that I’d volunteer for anything to get experience. And, because our teachers actually worked in the industry, they could offer us relevant, real-life opportunities. My camera tutor used to let me tag along on his Crime Watch reconstruction shoots!”

With her sights set on producing, Dana majored in Directing and Production Management. She says the connections she made at Unitec helped her get a foot in the door of the industry – starting with a month’s work experience in TVNZ’s Lifestyle Unit. 

“My production management tutor had a friend who worked on Maggie’s Garden Show and got me a role there. I spent a month working for free during the day, which Unitec was flexible enough to let me do because it was such a great opportunity. 

“I also had the job of viewing potential clips for New Zealand’s Funniest Home Videos. Someone on that team put me forward for a ‘hostess’ role on the Good Morning show, which involved making coffee and greeting guests. I was only 19 and had no idea what I was doing – I’d never even made coffee before! It was so important to me to make a good impression that I would literally throw up before work – I was so nervous.” 

Making a name for herself

Her nerves didn’t last long, and when Good Morning’s production moved from Wellington to Auckland, Dana was interviewed for a full-time role on the production team. From there her career took off. She was named Head of the TVNZ Internal Production Department while still in her 20s, and was the Executive Producer behind some of New Zealand’s most well-known shows – from entertainment series such as Dancing with the Stars and NZ’s Got Talent, to heartland favourites Country Calendar, Taste NZ and NZ House & Garden.

“Back in 2005 I was part of the team convincing the network that Dancing with the Stars NZ was a good idea. I’d watched Pauline Hanson on the Australian version and thought ‘wow this is going to be huge!’ Initially nobody got the attraction of dancing celebrities, so it took quite a bit of work to convince them to give us the money to do it. Then of course we had to encourage celebrities to take part!”

Dana also produced Annabel Langbein’s 13-part cooking and lifestyle series The Free Range Cook, which went on to screen in over 80 countries. 

“FremantleMedia approached me and said they wanted to create a show featuring ‘the next Nigella’. Not long afterwards, I was introduced to Annabelle Langbein and it was my job to work with her and create a show we could sell to an international market. Our vision was for a series that showcased New Zealand’s food as well as its stunning scenery. We based production at her rustic cabin in Central Otago and stuck to a very specific aesthetic: no plastic, always glass; a teacup for measuring; beautiful table linen. We put a lot of careful thought into the detail and it paid off.”

Despite Dana’s success in the reality/entertainment genre, she says her real passion lies in animation, lifestyle and documentaries. Her proudest work is her 2018 documentary, Life after Footy: Legends of the Pacific, which has recently been nominated for two TV awards.

“Life after Footy involved a group of mostly Pacific Island content makers, making a show about Pacific Islanders for Prime Time TV – so it was a first in that sense. But it’s also a really authentic story; one that isn’t often told. I was so proud of the way these men opened up about their vulnerabilities – talking about doing something they loved and having it ripped away from them when their bodies let them down. They articulated it so beautifully.

“That’s one of the things I love about being a producer – taking an idea you’re passionate about and seeing it come to life. It’s hugely rewarding.”

From one side of the table to the other

In 2016 Dana made the decision to go back to Unitec part time and get her Degree in Performing & Screen Arts  – something that hadn’t existed when she studied in the 1990s. 

“I was able to apply my real-life learning to the degree and completed my thesis on Producing Television for New Zealand audiences, which was so relevant to my career. My tutor was fantastic and provided an immense amount of support along the way.”

Then, earlier this year, Dana made a significant career shift – stepping in to the role of Senior Commissioner for Sky TV’s Entertainment division. After years of pitching her own ideas, she’s now sitting on the other side of the table.

“As a commissioner, I look for and look at locally made content put forward by producers and talk to them about whether it’s right for our audience and our brand. I give feedback on what is wonderful, what could be changed, or why it won’t work. Even if I love an idea, there’s still a team of people I need to convince. It takes a great deal of money to make a show, so it can’t just be one person’s decision.”

When an idea is given the green light, Dana then works to sort out the money, contracts and legals, and keeps an eye on the show as it moves through the production stages. 

“For a drama I’ll read the scripts, go to the table read, watch the edit down. As commissioners, ours are the last pair of eyes that see anything before it goes live. It’s exciting and such a huge privilege. Because I’ve sat on the other side of the table, I know how heartbreaking it is to love an idea and have someone tell you it’s not right for them! I try to be very careful about how I deliver my feedback.

“Probably what I love most about what I do is being part of such a fast-paced, constantly changing industry. Television and content production are very different to what they were when I studied in 1990s. But the great thing I found at Unitec was that they were always connected to the industry – particularly through the lecturers and tutors who work in the sector. The connections I made and the opportunities I was given through Unitec were invaluable in kick-starting my career.”

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