Television is the leading medium for which local documentaries have been produced. The broad reach of the channels on which these initially screened maximised the impact of their explorations of New Zealand’s history, society and culture, as well as their capacity to stimulate public debate.
Until 1989 the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) and its successor Television New Zealand (TVNZ) relied mainly on ‘in-house’ production, with network employees creating the television programmes. However, a proportion of the few programmes outsourced to independent producers during these years were documentaries. In the 1970s it was the documentary that revealed the crucial link between the outsourcing of local TV productions and the potential expansion of the country’s screen industry. This link was first shown when the NZBC commissioned a flow of independently produced documentaries between 1971 and 1974. This same link was powerfully demonstrated in the 1990s when the introduction of NZ On Air encouraged a new emphasis on outsourcing over in-house production.
Documentary production expanded vastly after 1990, with 252 hours produced in 1996, compared with just 43 in 1988. TVNZ and TV3 competed for local content, of which documentaries were an important category. Documentary, a category for which the new public broadcasting agency NZ On Air was now responsible, was specified as a priority for its allocations of public funding for TV production.
The ‘popular anthology’ series, screening documentaries aimed at a popular audience, was a common approach on television. Network executive Geoff Steven, initially at TV3 and later at TVNZ, led the establishment of this form. TV3’s Inside New Zealand (1991–2007) and TV One’s The Tuesday documentary (1991–97) and Documentary New Zealand (1998–2005) were examples.
Although the form was sometimes criticised for taking prime-time documentaries in the direction of entertainment and reducing the prospects for those with more serious subjects, it did allow documentaries to survive in a ratings-driven, intensely competitive TV environment. Although some series had links between episodes – for instance, TV One’s Heartland (1991–96) – popular-anthology formats were effective vehicles for the commissioning of hundreds of individual documentaries up to 2007.
Documentary versus reality show
The years 1990 to around 2007 were a new ‘golden age’ for local documentary, but the outlook for it steadily deteriorated after 2007. Although many factors have contributed to this – notably the absence of a non-commercial general audience TV channel to complement the ‘public service’ contributions of Māori Television – an overriding cause was the rise and continued appeal of so-called ‘reality TV’.
As reality TV continued to expand in broadcast television internationally, it reduced the prime-time audiences for traditional documentaries, especially on serious topics. The unflagging appeal of reality programming – which prioritised entertainment over social commentary – has made it extremely difficult to retain the same diversity, volume and profile for local documentary that was characteristic of New Zealand television in the past.
A pivotal documentary theme was biculturalism, which, when tackled by documentary one-offs or series, attracted unusual audience interest. Of the many local documentaries with bicultural themes, three examples stand out:
- Tangata whenua (1974)
- Bastion Point day 507 (1980)
- The New Zealand wars (1998).
Work of art
TV One’s Work of art anthology series (1993–99), in a more serious artistic style, was influential. As a vehicle for successive one-off profiles of important local artists and their work, the series saw the commissioning of more than 40 high-end documentaries. Work of art both boosted public knowledge about the achievements of New Zealand’s pre-eminent artists and provided an ongoing opportunity to showcase the work of leading documentary film-makers.