New Zealand society, culture, politics and history have been reflected in locally made content. However, the proportion of local content on screen has generally been lower than in other English-speaking countries. New Zealand’s small market size accentuated problems arising from the high cost of TV production, and its English-speaking population meant viewers are highly receptive to a continuing flow of imported English-language programmes.
With less than six months’ notice of the first broadcast in 1960, no programmes ready for broadcast and no local production staff, imported shows were a necessity. The first evening’s broadcast included The adventures of Robin Hood and Your children’s eyes (British) and episodes of The halls of ivy and Four just men (American). Local content was a live interview with a visiting English ballerina and a performance by the Howard Morrison Quartet.
The quality and dominance of imported programmes did little to discourage the ‘cultural cringe’ with which some viewers responded to locally produced programmes, and the abundance and low cost of the imports made it difficult to justify the commercial risks of TV production. From the start local content was dependent on public funding, which was justified in terms of cultural identity.
NZ On Air
Although local screen producers and directors felt that the deregulation of television in 1989 was an appropriate moment to introduce a local content quota, this did not happen. Instead, the Broadcasting Commission, renamed NZ On Air, was founded. NZ On Air’s responsibilities (outlined in the Broadcasting Act 1989) emphasised cultural identity rather than public service outcomes, underlining the change in government priorities for public television.
Public funding now existed to support a narrower range of production categories, including drama, documentary and special interest, and to ensure the production of programmes for a range of specified audience groups, including children, young people and Māori. In other countries a much broader set of objectives and institutions for public broadcasting typically included at least one publicly funded TV channel as a platform for non-commercial programmes.
Funding, competition and the independent production sector
Allocating public funding for TV production on a contestable, project-by-project basis, NZ On Air’s model engendered competition between TV production proposals. Because it allowed private as well as public networks to air the resulting programmes, these could more flexibly follow viewers across channels, even though the requirement under the Broadcasting Act 1989 to 'consider audience size' encouraged NZ On Air to pair costly television productions with channels holding the largest audiences.
By formalising the importance of outsourcing over in-house production of programmes, NZ On Air and its contestable funding model stimulated the expansion of New Zealand’s independent production sector. This flourished during the 1990s.
Funding model limitations
Although the 1990s were a positive start for NZ On Air, one limitation of its funding model became more evident as television services continued to expand after 2000: a TV project could only receive funding if a broadcaster had agreed to screen the finished programme. With TV One, TV2, TV3, Prime and Four all being advertiser-funded channels, this requirement effectively meant that a majority of NZ On Air-supported television content was created in accordance with the demands of advertising-friendly, ratings-conscious networks.
Broadcast versus digital
An awareness of potential threats to local content prompted Labour government moves from 2000 to strengthen broadcast television, the primary outlet for New Zealand-produced programmes. These included setting up Māori Television (2004) and the introduction of a public service charter for TVNZ in 2003. Another rising concern was that as viewers watched more TV content via the internet, the profitability of New Zealand’s leading free-to-air broadcast channels (which functioned as the debut platforms for new local content) would decline.
TVNZ’s public service charter and new digital channels
From 2003 a new public service charter was applied to the now commercially operating TVNZ. The charter entailed an ambitious set of ‘public service’ obligations for TVNZ, requiring quality programming that reflected New Zealand culture and addressed a larger range of audience needs and groups. However, even after TVNZ was given a charter, the public portion of its income remained less than 4%. Particular difficulty in meeting the charter’s terms was ensured by the requirement that TVNZ deliver ‘public service’ at the same time as maintaining its commercial profitability. While the charter effectively re-regulated TVNZ, other elements of television’s deregulated environment remained unchanged, other than the increasing economic dominance of Sky TV. The charter was considered a failed experiment by 2006, and was formally abolished in 2011.
The charter’s failure was one reason for the creation of TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, as non-commercial digital channels that were added to TVNZ’s existing services in 2007 and 2008, intended to provide commercial-free schedule space for public service programming. In the few years they operated, the two channels increased public service outcomes, especially in news, current affairs, special interest and children’s programming, an achievement that saw them generate considerable public support. However, a change in political priorities after 2008 meant that the public funding supply on which these channels relied was not renewed. TVNZ6 closed in 2011, followed by TVNZ7 in 2012.