Story: Television

Page 1. History of television in New Zealand

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Introduced to New Zealand in 1960, television has been a hugely important medium through which New Zealanders have received news and information, watched imported programmes and accessed local content. It began as separate channels in the four main centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin), and remained state-controlled and strictly regulated after a single national channel took over in 1969. At first television was black and white; broadcasting in colour began in 1973. By the 2000s, when television became multi-channel and multi-platform, ownership was spread between the public and private sectors.

Evolution of television

The evolution of New Zealand television can be explained in relation to three eras of television, identified by John Ellis in 1999:

  • scarcity – a broadcast-only era in which spectrum limits meant few television channels, allowing those that existed to enjoy unrivalled influence
  • availability – new technologies and reducing regulation enabled additional and competing TV channels and services
  • plenty – fuelled by digitisation and television’s convergence with the internet, many more television channels were introduced and programmes could be viewed online.


New Zealand television’s first era (1960–89) was one of scarcity. Just one publicly owned TV network, initially the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) and later Television New Zealand (TVNZ), defined television’s culture, schedules and programming. The state TV channels – at first just TV One, and from 1975 also TV2 – enjoyed unrivalled influence. While the obvious problem was too little choice for viewers, a public monopoly also left television subject to state control of its spending and operations.

Double vision

In the 1960s a holiday visit to friends or relatives living in another city often meant seeing an episode of a series or news item again or missing one altogether. Single prints of news footage and imported programmes were sent around the country, shown on each city’s TV channel in turn.

Within a year of the first official broadcast, advertising was introduced. Advertising revenue and the proceeds of a fee paid by each household with a television receiver funded broadcasting. Public networks in many other countries were funded by a broadcasting fee, but the New Zealand equivalent was permitted to gradually decline, leaving TVNZ around 85% reliant on advertising revenue by 1988.


Television’s second era (1990–99) was one of availability. New technologies and reduced regulation enabled additional TV channels and services, encouraging more competition (TV3 was launched in 1989 and the subscription-based network Sky TV in 1990) and meaning new challenges for public television. First was the restructuring of TVNZ as a state-owned enterprise (SOE) in 1989, which transformed it into a commercially focused business. Second was the creation in 1989 of a public broadcasting agency (officially called the Broadcasting Commission, but immediately renamed NZ On Air) to look after what were termed ‘social objectives’ in broadcasting. Third was the relaxation and removal of some earlier rules about how television operated, including the extent of both advertising and foreign ownership.

The restructuring and deregulation of television had far-reaching implications. An immediate result was the rise of a new kind of TVNZ, a commercially reliant network whose earlier ‘public service’ obligations had been removed. Assisted by its ratings dominance through the 1990s, TVNZ proved a very robust commercial performer, focusing on profit and paying a dividend to the government (a requirement for SOEs). However, it was a continuing public relations challenge for TVNZ that this very significant change of direction was poorly understood by many New Zealanders.

Era of plenty

Arriving a few years later in New Zealand than elsewhere, television’s transition to a third era of ‘plenty’ was under way by 2000. The shift was driven by the rise of the internet and digital transmission as a means of viewing TV programmes. Digital transmission was introduced in 2007 and co-existed with analogue transmission for several years. From 2012 New Zealand ‘went digital’, shifting region by region from both forms of transmission to solely digital. This was completed in December 2013.

Although the era of plenty stimulated increased demand and diversity for local content, it also encouraged more imported programming, so that the low proportion of local to imported television content did not change. However, a larger proportion of local content was produced by independent companies rather than in-house. Although leading broadcast networks (TVNZ, MediaWorks, Māori Television and Prime) were hosts for local content, the schedules of the multi-channel, subscription-based Sky TV was dominated by imported programmes. In 2014 it seemed likely that the continuing fragmentation of television audiences across a larger range of channels and platforms might further weaken the viability of some forms of local content.

Television in 2014 and beyond

In 2014, as New Zealand’s pay television services continued to gain in profitability and audience share, political decisions combined with the challenges of digital plenty to reduce some opportunities in the free-to-air broadcast television sector. These channels have been important for their availability to all. A strength of the sector (TV One, TV2, TV3, Māori Television, Prime and Four) was its continuing ratings dominance. Together, these channels averaged a prime-time audience share of 68.8% in 2012. Various factors have contributed to this, including the blend of local and imported material that characterises their schedules, a programme mix that New Zealanders clearly valued.

The choice of television available in the future depends on the health of the free-to-air sector. Heavily reliant on advertising revenue, it faces increasing economic dominance by the subscription-funded Sky TV. Continued government support of television’s public institutions – NZ On Air, Māori Television and the Māori broadcast funding agency Te Māngai Pāho, all reliant on public finance – will be critical to their effectiveness, to their facilitation of new local content and to their ability, through that content, to help maintain the allure of TV’s broadcast channels.

How to cite this page:

Trisha Dunleavy, 'Television - History of television in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Trisha Dunleavy, published 22 Oct 2014