The United Kingdom had instituted a public television service in 1936 and, although this had been discontinued during the Second World War, it was soon apparent from developments in the post-war period that the medium could have far-reaching social and economic repercussions. Hence successive governments in New Zealand had indicated that the almost haphazard development which had characterised the growth of radio broadcasting should not be duplicated in television. In this approach they were greatly assisted by the fact that, although amateur and trade interests pressed for action, transmitting equipment for television called for considerable capital outlay. In these circumstances experimentation became confined almost exclusively to educational institutions which could combine specialised research with the associated field of electronics.
The Departmental Committee established in 1949 continued to advise Government on overseas developments, but it was not until March 1951 that the first public transmissions took place, in the form of closed-circuit demonstrations given from Broadcasting Service studios. Some years were to elapse, however, before transmissions were available to the general public, but in May 1952 Canterbury University College, through its experimental station ZL3XT, gave the first television broadcast which was received some two miles from the transmitting point. In the same year the Departmental Committee recommended the adoption of the 405-line system of transmission but in 1958 – following the adoption by a number of overseas countries of the 625-line system – this decision was reconsidered and the 625-line system was accepted as the New Zealand standard.
Before this decision was taken, experiments had been conducted on the 405-line system. In February 1957 an experimental television licence was issued to the Bell Radio and Television Corporation of Auckland, and by early 1958 it had extended its transmissions to include test patterns, live camera studies, and extracts from motion picture films. These transmissions, which were given for a period of one and a half hours on three nights of the week, were available to an estimated 100 set-holders.
The population within transmitter range made Auckland the obvious centre to launch a television service but the difficult problem of coverage again had to be faced. To assist in the selection of a suitable site, experimental transmissions from a low-powered station began on 23 February 1959. Spasmodic at first, they were placed on a regular basis on 18 May. These experiments continued successfully, the upshot being an announcement on 28 January 1960 that the Government had decided to introduce television as an entertainment medium, to New Zealand. Rapid advances followed and by 1 January 1961, 18 hours of programmes were being transmitted each week.
An amendment to the Radio Regulations 1953 had provided for the payment of a television licence fee at the rate of £4 annually where transmission hours did not exceed 16, and of £6 10s. where there were more than 16 hours. The first provision was of limited application only because, when stations were eventually established in areas outside Auckland, transmission was increased beyond 16 hours each week.
On 1 April 1962, the transmission hours of Channel 2 were increased to 28 weekly, and advertising was admitted for approximately half the transmission time – on alternate nights. The same plan was adopted for stations to be established in Christchurch and Wellington. Channel 3, Christchurch, began transmitting on 1 June 1961, and Channel 1, Wellington, one month later. The initial hours of eight each week were expanded to 28 in Christchurch on 1 October 1961 and in Wellington on 1 November, 1961. Channel 2, Dunedin, the last station to be established, began transmitting on 31 July 1962. Transmission hours were increased to 35 each week from 1 October 1962, and were again increased early in 1964.
As with the sound radio stations, these four television stations came under the control of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation on 1 April 1962.