News programmes have always been an object of fascination for New Zealanders. They allow a geographically isolated nation to gain access to international events and provide a local perspective on these. News has also been an important means for a relatively small, highly dispersed population to learn about and better understand itself.
The technological limitations of 1960s television meant that news bulletins began as ‘radio with pictures’. There were relatively few pictures to accompany newsreader scripts, with taped news footage subject to the same regional circulation delays as other TV programmes, and footage for international news stories taking several days to arrive. These problems were resolved by satellite technology, although it took until 1985 for satellite feeds to offer full 24-hour access to international news sources.
Spreading the news
In 1969 the news was the first television programme to be ‘networked’. For the first time, all New Zealanders could watch the same news at the same time. Until then, people watched regional channels. News footage from overseas would travel around the country, shown to different audiences on different days.
The mid-evening news bulletin, first known as NZBC reports (1963–69), had unrivalled appeal, becoming television’s daily main event. Two other forms of news reporting developed. One was the current-affairs series, which centred on interviews of public and political figures. This began with the NZBC’s Compass (1964–69) and Gallery (1968–74), and aimed to complement the news bulletin by subjecting topical issues to detailed analysis. The other was the daily regional news magazine, exemplified by 1960s example Town and around.
Annoying the prime minister
In the 1970s Prime Minister Rob Muldoon made his irritation with TV One’s current-affairs interviewing style obvious. When he decided to end ‘two-channel independence’ by amalgamating the channels it was widely thought that irritation was one motivation.
Expansion, from 1975
As with most other areas of local content, news and current affairs expanded significantly in the late 1970s. In the early two-channel system, each channel had its own news and current affairs department, a ‘flagship’ mid-evening bulletin and additional current-affairs programmes. Yet with the Auckland-based South Pacific Television (TV2) disadvantaged in terms of both national coverage and audience, the Wellington-based TV One was positioned for far greater influence in terms of news.
When the new TVNZ (an amalgamation of the formerly separate state-owned channels, TV One and TV2) launched in 1980, it offered an expanded range of news programmes. Viewers could watch daily news bulletins on both channels, regional news shows and weekly current-affairs programmes (including Nationwide and Eyewitness). For the first time TVNZ’s Maori Production Unit made Māori-language news programmes, including the in-depth weekly Koha (TV One) and the daily news programme Te karere (TV2).
Private player in the market
The next major transition for TV news was precipitated by the 1989 launch of TV3. New Zealanders could now choose between state-owned and private TV news providers. Determined to provide a genuine alternative to TVNZ, TV3 put its own hour-long bulletin, 3 national news, head-to head against TVNZ’s half-hour One network news and half-hour current-affairs show Holmes. While TVNZ won the initial ratings battle, by the late 1990s TVNZ was becoming concerned about the popularity of 3 news with urban young-adult viewers (the audience segment most sought after by advertisers).
Television’s post-1989 environment of undiluted commercialism and aggressive competition (in which both networks needed to maximise revenue through ratings) made it impossible for news programming to remain as public-service-oriented as it was before 1989. Stories, structures and styles of news bulletins were increasingly tailored to the priorities of commercial networks and their advertising sponsors. There was a higher proportion of crime, human interest and celebrity stories, and fewer traditional public-interest items about matters like political policy-making and its implications.
Cute little news
Comparing One news in the 1990s with TV news in the 1980s, industry and academic commentators used terms such as ‘Cootchie-Coo News’, ‘diet news’, ‘morselization’, and ‘tabloidization’.
News after 2000
In 2011 the neglected public-service potential of New Zealand television helped fuel a national campaign to save the four-year old TVNZ7, the non-commercial channel whose hour-long daily news bulletin and weekly current-affairs shows became touchstones for ‘Save TVNZ7’ supporters. From 2012, in the absence of TVNZ7, the only daily national news bulletin that operated in a non-commercial schedule was Māori Television’s Te kāea.
There was continuing pressure on New Zealand’s commercial networks to further ‘soften’ their news formats, content and presentation styles. But the traditional functions of locally produced, non-commercial television news – which some argued was central to an informed and healthy democracy – remained important to many New Zealanders.