Māori have always celebrated the role of the storyteller. In a traditional society with a rich oral tradition, speakers and singers held a special place. They interpreted the world around them and explained it in stories. They delivered their tales with meaning and style to the eager audiences in the village.
In a whakapapa view of the media, the television broadcasters of today are junior siblings (teina) to their elders (tuakana) of the marae, and of print, radio and film. The birth and growth of Māori television has happened because of the connections and contributions of many people from all branches of the family tree of tribal storytellers. It was a natural evolution: from the kōrero (storytelling) to the script, from the marae to the screen.
In the early years of New Zealand television, Māori appeared as guest performers. The first broadcast on 1 June 1960 featured the wildly popular Howard Morrison Quartet. They typified the Māori ability to entertain a mainstream audience. A few Māori – including Morrison – became presenters with wide popular appeal. Others appeared with distinction in local drama and entertainment productions, notably in the first popular local drama series, Pukemanu (1971–72).
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, Marama Martin was the Māori person most often seen on television. A continuity announcer with a warm and attractive manner, she told viewers what programmes would be shown later in the day. Martin was the first person to be seen in colour when television broadcasts switched from black and white.
Māori programme content in the 1960s was rare and generally confined to light entertainment or the arts. Sometimes current-affairs stories showed the problems encountered by Māori, who were then in the difficult throes of urbanisation. These programmes were all made by Pākehā. In the next decade, this was to change.
During the 1970s New Zealand heard the strident voice of a new Māori consciousness. A committed core of urban young people began to agitate for reform. By this point in modern Māori history, the biggest focus was on matters of identity, in particular the sorry state of the Māori language.
In 1972 a large group of students and their elders led by Hana Te Hemara presented a petition of more than 30,000 signatures to Parliament in support of te reo Māori (the Māori language). This was a pivotal moment. In the short term the petition added to the pressure on the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and helped those within it who wanted to see more Māori on television. In the long term, te reo Māori was to be the cause célèbre that would pave the way for a singular indigenous broadcasting voice.
It has been suggested that in the early 1970s New Zealanders were more likely to see African Americans on television than Māori.
In 1974 the Māori-focused television series Tangata whenua stunned the country. These six documentaries from Pacific Films were fronted by Pākehā historian Michael King. The director was Barry Barclay of Ngāti Apa. It was a study of a contemporary Māori world in uneasy transition. Each episode presented an intimate insight into traditional views of tribe, family, past and present. None of this had been seen before by so many people, all at once.
Barclay made these documentaries in a manner that set both example and inspiration for future Māori television production. He showed that if a programme was made in a Māori way, it could have a wairua (spirit) – like any taonga (treasure). Barclay faced his ignorance about his own culture with a sense of humility and often placed his camera at some distance from the elders. This gave the series an easy sense of respect and intimacy. Barclay always believed that a camera should have good manners.
Other Māori programmes made in the 1970s included documentaries (including Kapiti: island of spirits, 1973, and The Maori land march, 1975), drama (Uenuku, 1974, and Death of the land, 1979) and current affairs (Pacific viewpoint).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After several years of agitation and negotiation, the Māori Television Service (MTS) was launched on 28 March 2004. The law that established the channel got two bangs for one buck: an important tool in the revitalisation of the Māori language was at last in place, and the dreamt-of Māori television presence became a reality.
From the very first frames of their debut broadcast, the Māori Television Service had to get it right. Politicians and partisan commentators had been sceptical of this television vision.
The aims of the channel were ambitious from the very start, despite limited funding. The expected hours of broadcast television were well exceeded, with a full complement of telegenic and effortlessly bilingual presenters on air. MTS runs two channels: the first is bilingual, the second in Māori. The Te Reo channel was launched on 28 March 2008.
While the channels exist because of the language, not enough people want to view Māori-language television to make it a viable commercial concern. From the beginning MTS has been subsidised by the government.
Māori Television’s relative editorial freedom allowed it to broadcast quality current affairs, documentary and drama, both locally made and international. The channel received a critical thumbs-up from viewers hungry for intelligent public-service television. Many audiences appreciated a programming style and presentation that was happily and respectfully Māori.
Increasing the audience for the channels remained the biggest challenge. Figures indicated that the majority of viewers were Pākehā. Questions remained as to whether the channels were dependent on fluent Māori speakers for their growth, or whether they would have to dilute the emphasis on the language to attract more viewers. In its first decade of existence, this young television service achieved that precarious balance between reo and ratings.
Māori Television portrayed a way of life that exists nowhere else on the planet, as Tangata whenua did in the 1970s. The channel’s annual Anzac Day broadcasts and events like the Rugby World Cup in 2011 also showed that Māori Television had the ability to represent New Zealand as a whole.
In the 2010s the mainstream channels broadcast a modest range of news, current affairs, youth programmes and documentaries serving both niche Māori and general audiences. Some of these shows reflected Pākehā views of Māori as people who are often in trouble with the law, or who struggle against the odds in New Zealand society.
Other productions have subverted these stereotypes by putting a Māori skew on a familiar format. The GC was a 'reality' series that followed the lives of Māori twenty-somethings living on the Gold Coast of Australia. While the show was hugely successful with viewers, questions were asked about whether it was the kind of production that warranted government funding.
In late 2014 TVNZ announced that it would be outsourcing the production of most of its Māori and Pacific programming, other than the news programme Te karere.
Fifty years on from the beginnings of television in New Zealand, the Māori population was relatively young. The largest single Māori television audience were youth – not all of whom were fluent in te reo Māori.
The debate over whether television could achieve the stated purpose of helping to save a language continued. New aims and objectives and key performance indicators would be sought for new strategies and tactics. A greater task was to redefine the challenges in Māori terms and to answer them in a Māori way.
For Māori the presence of their native tongue on air was a powerful thing. In the 2000s a new generation of speakers and singers strode onto the television marae, in front of millions of people.
Burns, Derek. Public money, private lives: Aotearoa Television, the inside story. Auckland: Reed, 1997.
Walker, Ranginui. Ka whawhai tonu matou: struggle without end. Auckland: Penguin, 2004.