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.