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.
The evolution of New Zealand television can be explained in relation to three eras of television, identified by John Ellis in 1999:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In its first two decades (1960–80), New Zealand television’s potential to achieve a Māori presence and voice was stifled. The overwhelming majority of television personnel were middle-class Pākehā, who dominated the cultural perspectives of the programmes that were produced. When Māori did appear, it was usually as entertainers. Performers, including singer Prince Tui Teka and comedian Billy T. James, were included in variety shows, and a high proportion of the few programmes about Māori focused on song and dance. Songs of their forefathers (1964), Pupiri ra (a six-part series, 1970) and Taku toa (the first full-length colour film production, 1970) all fell into this category. In 1974 the Tangata whenua series (directed by Barry Barclay of Ngāti Apa) and the one-off drama Uenuku (narrated entirely in the Māori language) showed some of the potential for Māori programming.
The Howard Morrison Quartet made the first of their many TV appearances on the first official night of television broadcast (1 June 1960). An Auckland Star reviewer described the quartet (which had previous television experience in Melbourne) looking ‘as much at ease as on stage or in night club. They shone.’1
The 1970s surge in Māori activism included a push by the Maori Council and the Wellington-based Te Reo Maori Society for better representation of Māori on screen. There were marches and a petition signed by more than 30,000 people, calling for support for te reo Māori (the Māori language).
In 1980 TVNZ created a Maori Production Unit dedicated to producing a set of Māori-language programmes. The unit also provided a training ground for Māori staff. The ‘mainstreaming’ of Māori language, news and culture that this unit’s regular programmes aimed for was all the more effective because there were only two TV channels.
A 1978 petition calling for more Māori content on television had more than 25,000 signatures, and came with the comment that there were more African Americans than Māori on New Zealand screens.
A weekly current affairs magazine, Koha (1980–89, continuing as Marae from 1990), and a daily bulletin, Te karere (1983–), were the first regular Māori-produced programmes. They aimed to nurture Māori language, culture and custom and to nourish biculturalism by offering Māori perspectives to mainstream audiences. Aired in prime time until 1990, such programmes continued in the 2000s in off-peak slots and remained important. They pioneered a distinctive style for Māori-produced TV news, and provided an initial training ground for the development of the larger range of news, current affairs and factual programmes later produced for Māori television.
In late 2014 TVNZ announced that it would be outsourcing the production of most of its Māori and Pacific programming, other than Te karere.
The decision to create a separate Māori television network was preceded by a series of legal battles. The first took place in 1985, when a claim brought by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo (the Wellington Māori Language Board) was heard by the Waitangi Tribunal. The last was heard in 1993 by the Privy Council (then New Zealand’s highest court), when it decided that promises made by government to Māori had to be fulfilled.
Te Māngai Pāho, a Māori broadcast funding agency, was one result; another was the inclusion of programming promoting Māori language and culture as a priority for NZ On Air funding. Setting up a Māori television channel took nearly a decade. A pilot service, Aotearoa Television Network (ATN), was created in 1996, largely limited to viewers in Auckland. Insufficient public funding and related uncertainties led to ATN’s closure in 1997.
The most successful of the Labour government’s achievements in broadcast television was the introduction of a non-commercial Māori Television Service (MTS). In stark contrast with the advertiser-funded position of TVNZ, the founding legislation of MTS (the Māori Television Service Act 2003) gave it a clear ‘public service’ remit and full public funding. Launched in 2004, Māori Television, the flagship channel of MTS, brought a profile to Māori language, culture, custom, society and history that was unprecedented in television. A second channel, Te Reo, entirely in the Māori language, was launched in 2008.
Māori Television is required to broadcast mainly in the Māori language during prime-time hours, to offer a programme mix that informs, educates and entertains, and to nurture indigenous culture, custom and language. An important marker of its public status is the very high proportion (up to 70%) of local content it offers viewers. Broadcasting a full range of programming, including current affairs, documentaries, children’s programmes, light entertainment and drama, Māori Television attracted a small but diverse audience.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Local drama production began in the early 1960s and has made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand television. Yet drama has always been a particularly vulnerable category in a small English-speaking country where imported American and British programmes have been available, cheap and popular.
While cost has limited the amount that has been made, drama’s ability to strongly reflect cultural identity has made it an important element of New Zealand television. Local drama has always been supported by public funding, and as increased competition has pressured the incomes and budgets of the broadcast channels that host it, that support has become vital in ensuring that it survives.
Television drama has included drama series, serials and soap operas, made-for-television feature films and one-off dramas packaged into anthologies. Although series and soap operas have been the emphasis for local drama (as in other countries), all these genres have been produced in New Zealand.
Set in a forestry town and conceived by former forester Julian Dickon, 1970s drama series Pukemanu has been described as ‘rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey’.1 It was also local drama’s first blockbuster, avidly watched and embraced by a comfortable majority of viewers.
Until 1989 public network TVNZ and its predecessors’ drama production units were the institutional base for local television drama. Public funding had guaranteed a continuity and range of drama productions. The volume and consistency of in-house production had trained generations of writers, directors and producers, some of whom remained important contributors to local screen drama in the 2000s. Popular and influential dramas of all kinds were made, including:
Despite its benefits, the in-house system did reduce the potential diversity of local TV drama, with the dearth of independent commissioning (in drama and other key categories) also delaying the development of the independent production sector. It also confined New Zealand TV drama to productions consistent with the ‘house style’ of one network.
From 1990 the institutional support and public funding of drama were the responsibility of public broadcasting agency NZ On Air. In the early 1990s the agency’s distinctive funding allocation model was stretched by a small group of ambitious dramas: An angel at my table (1990), Bread and roses (1993), Marlin Bay (1992–94) and, most challenging of all because a five-night-a-week soap opera had not yet been attempted, Shortland Street (1992–). The risk proved worthwhile, with Shortland Street becoming self-funding after four years.
While the NZ On Air model was never intended to be an alternative way to pursue public service broadcasting, it was ideal for the expensive and risk-prone category of local TV drama. It allowed private networks (TV3 and Prime) to host new local dramas, ensuring drama’s limited public funding reached a majority of viewers, despite market fragmentation.
As public funding for drama was allocated on a project-by-project basis, there was competition between the proposals put forward and between the networks for access to the strongest ideas and creative talent. NZ On Air’s drama funding was allocated directly to production companies. This empowered drama producers, although new proposals still required network agreement to screen them before they could be funded.
Series and serials proved to be the forms best suited to the advertiser-funded broadcast channels that hosted local dramas, and through their broad popularity secured a special place in New Zealand’s television culture. Outrageous fortune (2005–10), the most enduring and popular drama series that New Zealand has ever produced, left a legacy of audience confidence in the pleasures of local drama. That confidence assisted the popularity of later series Go girls (2009–), The almighty Johnsons (2011–13) and Nothing trivial (2011–13). With NZ On Air and key host networks TVNZ and Mediaworks placing a high value on conceptual innovation and local content when developing new dramas, viewers got local drama that reflected their lives, worlds and unique culture.
Attracting more viewers than other types of programming, light entertainment and sport dominate New Zealand prime-time television. The ratings strength of these programme categories meant that the commercial focus that prevailed from the 1990s worked in their favour.
In the 1960s variety, music, cooking and game shows, many of them locally made, were mixed with imported series and soap operas to fill programming schedules. Some programmes, like the talent show Have a shot (1962), had a earlier life on radio, and many used radio personalities. In 1961 Time out for talent launched the career of Ray Columbus, who became one of New Zealand’s first television stars, with his own show, Club Columbus, in 1962. By the time C’mon (a pop music show) appeared in 1967, there was sufficient local TV talent to do everything from compere to go-go dance.
Imported programmes included Coronation Street, first seen on New Zealand screens in 1964, I love Lucy, The avengers and Star trek.
New Zealand television got started just two weeks after the marriage of Britain’s Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Luckily, this early opportunity for ratings success was not missed – an experimental channel in Auckland televised the wedding, bringing traffic in Queen Street and the suburbs to a halt as crowds gathered around shop windows to watch.
In 1965 an early attempt at satire saw Charles Dickens’s A Christmas carol boiled down to 10 minutes and set in a state house. 1969’s In view of the circumstances was the first local comedy series, but this genre did not flourish until the later 1970s and early 1980s, when A week of it, McPhail and Gadsby and Billy T. James were produced. The most popular scripted comedies overall have been Gliding on (1981–85) and bro’Town (2004–9).
New Zealand’s first fund-raising telethon was held by TV2 in its opening week in 1975, raising over $500,000 for St John Ambulance. Later telethons would make much larger sums for beneficiaries, including Starship Children’s Hospital and, in 1991, cyclone-devastated Western Samoa.
Reality shows, popular and cheap to make, were first produced in the 1990s. They came in several forms, including competition series (New Zealand’s got talent), ‘docusoap’ series and serials (The GC), crime or accident series (Police Ten 7) and makeover shows (The block). Early examples include Flatmates (1997) and Popstars (1999), both made by independent production houses. While many of the shows were based on formats developed overseas, New Zealanders have also developed and exported reality show formats, notably Popstars.
When the Rugby Union refused to allow the live broadcast of a test match between the All Blacks and the Lions in 1971, politicians, union leaders and mayors joined the fight on television’s side and lost. New Zealand viewers would see a test live via satellite from Cardiff Arms Park in Wales before they saw one played in New Zealand.
Local sports programming began in 1960, with magazine-style shows that included film clips, demonstrations and interviews with sporting personalities. By the mid-1960s the fledgling television stations had the necessary outside broadcast equipment, and cricket, football, hockey, tennis, basketball, rugby league (other than international games) and golf were being televised live. Concerned that television coverage would impact on gate takings, rugby unions and horse-racing authorities would not allow live televising of matches and races.
In the 1970s and 1980s sports broadcasts became a dominant feature of New Zealand television. ‘Television is sport – sport is television,’ wrote Robert Boyd-Bell in his history of the first 25 years of television.1 An important game would draw up to half the population to their screens. Sport was also relatively cheap to produce, requiring an outside broadcast van, two or three camera operators and a commentator.
Television’s shift to a commercial environment in 1988 did not serve sport well. Minor sports had to pay to get games televised, while television paid the big four (rugby union, rugby league, netball and cricket) for the right to broadcast their games. In 1993 getting coverage of the premier tennis tournament cost over $75,000, golf’s major tournament cost over $150,000 and the final of the women’s squash open was approximately $30,000. When challenged, TVNZ, by then a state-owned enterprise, firmly rejected its previous public-service role with respect to sport.
In 1990 Sky TV began broadcasting in New Zealand and buying the rights to televise major sporting events. It was its televising of sport that persuaded many New Zealanders to subscribe. Two decades later, free-to-air channels had lost core sporting content and about half of all New Zealand households subscribed to Sky.
In 2014 watching television remained a preferred activity for many New Zealand children despite the challenge offered by computer gaming, internet film site YouTube and social media. Children’s viewing has been contentious since television was first shown in New Zealand. In 2014 vigorous debate continued over the effect of television on children. Some parents limited their children’s television viewing, but many other children had unfettered access.
People viewing an experimental television show in 1954 had opposing views of its impact on children. Some thought it ‘wonderful entertainment’ that would keep children dry and out of mischief on wet days. Others believed it would be too attractive – ‘they’d never be out of the house and would grow up pale, little things, knowing nothing about sport’.1
Children’s shows were screened from television’s first days – Lassie and Robin Hood were shown from 1960 and Crusader rabbit (a cartoon) from 1961, and Judy-Anne and the puppet snake Fergie Fang appeared on Children’s corner in 1962. A mix of local and imported programmes continued to be shown, in a range of programming that included music and game shows in addition to cartoons, drama series and magazine shows.
Some programming was family fare – it was often a shared activity to watch a Sunday night locally made ‘family drama’ serial. Outstanding examples include; Hunter’s gold (1976), Children of Fire Mountain (1979), Under the mountain (1981), The fire-raiser (1986) and Kaitangata twitch (2010).
Programming for preschool and early-primary-school children included a New Zealand version of the British show Play school, Spot on (1974–89) and How’s that? (1979), which became What now? (1981–).
In a commercially driven environment, children’s television with restrictions on advertising was dependent on public funding. TVNZ6, a dedicated non-commercial children’s and family channel, lasted from 2007 until 2011, when its funding ceased. Children’s channels on pay TV had a high level of imported content – one study found there was more United States-sourced programming on New Zealand channels than on those in the US itself.
In the 2010s children began to move between television and computer, visiting TV show websites that encouraged interaction. Popular children’s shows, including the long-running What now? and Sticky TV, were watched, interacted with via their websites and tweeted about by children as young as eight.
Country calendar, which first screened in March 1966 and was still on screen in 2022, is New Zealand’s longest-running television programme. Its hundreds of episodes covering every aspect of farming have been enjoyed by urban dwellers as much as those in the country.
The popularity of genial Fred Barnes, Country calendar’s first frontperson, challenged the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation rule that there were to be no ‘personalities’ in New Zealand television. Despite viewer protests, Barnes was put behind the cameras to direct the new, less engaging presenters.
The concept was suggested by Gilbert Stringer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation director general in the mid-1960s, and developed by programmer and presenter Fred Barnes. Barnes later described the show as New Zealand’s version of rural programmes then screening in other Commonwealth countries.
While Country calendar is New Zealand’s best known rural television show, there were many others. A dog’s show, which ran from 1977 to 1992, put sheepdogs and their masters through their paces. The 1990s Heartland documentary series explored out-of-the-way parts of New Zealand, including many small towns and rural areas. Rural delivery supplemented Country calendar. The country or small towns were sometimes the settings for locally made dramas, including Pukemanu (1970s), Jocko, Mortimer’s patch, Country GP (all 1980s), Jackson’s wharf (1990s) and Mercy Peak (2000s).
Rural content became available on pay television when a rural television station, the Country Channel, began broadcasting on the Sky network in 2008. A number of websites, such as RuralTV.co.nz, embedded video.
From 1970 many New Zealanders watched the Undersea world of Jacques Cousteau with fascination; in 1977 a Natural History Unit was set up in Dunedin to make local natural-history programmes. The unit cut its teeth on Wild places (1978), a six-part series about seldom visited parts of New Zealand, including White Island, the Sinclair Wetlands and the Mackenzie Country. The unit’s programmes, including series Wild south (1980–96) and Wildtrack (1981 to early 1990s), were enjoyed by New Zealand viewers and won international awards.
With the setting up of NZ On Air in 1989 and greater availability of public funding, independent production houses began making natural-history programmes. The Natural History Unit was sold in 1997 to Fox TV Studios, and then, in 2012, to David Haslingden, who had been a Fox executive. Known as Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ), it continued to flourish, making and selling documentaries internationally and winning numerous awards. In the 2000s about 10% of the programmes it produced were made in and about New Zealand.
In 2014 programmes with natural-history content continued to be popular.
Boyd-Bell, Robert. New Zealand television: the first 25 years. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1985.
Dunleavy, Trisha. Ourselves in primetime: a history of New Zealand television drama. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005.
Dunleavy, Trisha, and Hester Joyce. New Zealand film and television: institution, industry and cultural change. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2011.