While public service television entered a long period of slow decline in the 1980s, it was a time of growth in Māori production. The protests of the 1970s and resulting political traction enabled Māori to explore opportunities to spread the word about Māori identity and assertion. For those working in broadcasting, the mission was to seize every opportunity to put Māori content on air, and develop a skilled Māori workforce to make it happen.
A Pākehā view of Māori
For the most part, Māori programmes in the early 1980s reflected what Pākehā television bosses wanted to see: ‘a window on the Māori world’. These shows existed for the benefit of all New Zealanders. However, Māori were in a mood to run things themselves.
Koha, Te karere and Waka huia
In 1980 experienced producer Ray Waru took the chance to make a weekly magazine programme known as Koha. It would screen on Sundays in prime time.
Everything stops for Te karere
Te karere started on TV2, but because of poor reception on the East Coast, with its large Māori population, the programme was broadcast there on Television One. Te karere went to air at 5.55 p.m., and journalist Derek Fox recalled complaints from a local school that it cut into the end of Dr Who. He also remembered that it was impossible to get a drink in the pub between 5.55 and 6 p.m. when everyone was watching the show.
The first daily Māori-language programme, Te karere, started in 1983. It was a four-minute news bulletin produced by old-school print and radio journalists Derek Fox and Whai Ngata. They took a modest shoestring operation and turned it into a professional television presentation of news about the Māori world.
Both these programmes evolved over the 1980s in size and scope. They normalised a Māori presence on television, and trained a new generation of Māori television professionals, many of whom left TVNZ to lay the foundation for an independent Māori production community.
In 1987 producers Ernie Leonard and Whai Ngata devised Waka huia as an archival series of documentaries that would be tasked with recording the knowledge of elders for all time. The show would be produced entirely in te reo Māori (the Māori language). After more than 1,000 episodes, Waka huia was still on air in 2014. The series was unique in the world as a broadcast record of a people's knowledge and belief systems. The window had become a mirror.
In the late 1980s Māori television was gathering its first elders. The best-known was Howard Morrison, who had appeared in the first official television broadcast in 1960 and frequently thereafter. He was the subject of episodes of This is your life, Magic Kiwis and Sir Howard Morrison – time of my life, a celebration of his 40 years in show business.
Te reo on television
From 1985 to 1993 Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo (the Wellington Māori Language Board) and the New Zealand Māori Council pursued the government through the Waitangi Tribunal and the courts. They sought protection of the Māori language and the establishment of Māori broadcasting. One result was the Māori Language Act 1987, which made Māori an official language. This gave fresh impetus and resource to the cause of Māori television. New programmes, notably Waka huia, started to be made exclusively in the Māori language.
Deregulation of broadcasting
The deregulation of broadcasting had a profound impact on the screening of Māori programmes. From 1989 television’s public service role diminished and commercial success became the dominant concern. In the new environment there was no commercial-free time on television except Sunday mornings. Māori content was deemed less acceptable to advertisers, and was therefore unwelcome in prime time. Māori programmes were relegated to the Sunday slot.
Some saw this as ghetto programming. However, with no commercials, it was also a substantial amount of uninterrupted television time that existed nowhere else in the schedule. It was a time to experiment.
Sunday morning television
During the 1990s Sunday morning television became a laboratory that nurtured a cornucopia of Māori production. Although much of it was made within TVNZ, a growing amount was made by independent companies. The decade saw substantial growth in Māori production capacity.
Programmes of many genres were made for diverse Māori audiences. Documentaries (The natural world of the Māori, 1989), youth television (Mai time, 1993–2007, and Tumeke, later called Pukana, 1999–), and forays into comedy and drama (Staunch, 1999, and E tipu e rea – Roimata, 1989) screened not just on Sunday mornings but elsewhere on the TVNZ and TV3 schedules.
By 1996 there was a clamour for the National government to make good on overdue promises to deliver a dedicated Māori television channel, and a decision from the Privy Council (then New Zealand’s highest court) forced action. The Aotearoa Television Network pilot was established with scant resources, inexperienced staff and unrealistic timelines. It broadcast from May 1996 to February 1997, and was required to provide three hours of original Māori programming each day. Despite achieving its targets, it collapsed under the weight of unreasonable expectations, internal disagreements and media-fuelled scandals.