Television was introduced in New Zealand in 1960, with stations based in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Like other media, television provided the farming sector with information and entertainment. It also conveyed idealised images of rural New Zealand to a broad audience.
By 1961, more than three-quarters of New Zealand’s population was urban – a dramatic change from 1891, when over half lived in rural areas. However, many people still thought of the country as the ‘real’ New Zealand, and locally made television programmes often featured rural themes.
The haggis harvest
Country calendar became famous for its spoofs. One programme urged Otago farmers to rear haggis. It compared Otago’s climate to that of Scotland, where, viewers were told, there had been remarkable success in farming haggis (actually a Scottish dish made from oats and meat, cooked in a sheep or calf’s stomach).
The first rural information programme was Country calendar, which debuted on 6 March 1966. Its focus on personal farming stories and its informal approach appealed to both urban and rural viewers, and it became extremely popular.
Still on air in 2022, Country calendar is the longest-running programme on New Zealand television. It has flourished during changes in television, including the introduction of national networking in 1969, the establishment of the state-owned enterprise TVNZ in 1988, and the restructuring of TVNZ as a crown entity in 2003. The funding of Country calendar illustrates the move to commercial television – once funded entirely by TVNZ, it was later subsidised by the broadcasting commission, New Zealand On Air. By 2008 it was commercially sponsored.
Some locally-made television dramas used country settings to tell New Zealand stories and explore the contrast between rural and urban attitudes. Based in an imaginary North Island timber town, Pukemanu (1971) was the first convincing picture of rural life. Popular dramas in the 1980s were Jocko, the adventures of a modern-day swagman; Mortimer’s patch, which centred on a semi-rural police station; and Country GP, based in a rural community in the late 1940s. In the 1990s and early 2000s Jackson’s wharf and Mercy Peak were set in typical small towns.
Comedy and documentary
In the mid-1970s, comedian John Clarke created the character of farmer Fred Dagg to satirise current events. With his black singlet, gumboots, Kiwi accent and laconic sense of humour, Fred Dagg was seen as a typical rural ‘hard case’ character, and gained a cult following.
In the 1990s the Heartland documentary series traded on New Zealanders’ affectionate view of country life – through its name, its focus on beautiful scenery, and its portrayal of rural and small-town people and values.
Advertisements for everything from food to building materials have taken advantage of New Zealanders’ nostalgia for the country way of life. The Chesdale cheese jingle ‘We are the blokes from down on the farm’ had a long run in the 1960s and 1970s. Toyota utility vehicle advertisements of the 1980s featuring the real-life rural personality Barry Crump were also hugely popular.
Some advertisements targeting farmers, such as those for animal drenches, may be less palatable to urban dwellers, but get the message across effectively to their intended audience.
Rural programmes today
In 2008, rural themes were less evident in local drama and comedy, but persisted in advertising. Farming information programmes continued, including Country calendar and Rural delivery. Farming shows on smaller regional channels included the South Island-focused Rob’s country, and a central North Island equivalent, Farming today.