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The History of Public Media in NZ

Our lack of public television means many TV genres are no longer available, especially in prime-time (see the box below). So, it’s no surprise that New Zealanders are turning off their televisions and just watching Netflix or dodgy downloads.

What happened to NZ Television?


Back in the old days (the 20th century) New Zealand had public service television. It was sometimes amazing and sometimes incredibly dull. It was sometimes cheesy, sometimes revelatory and sometimes an incredible nation-building, culture shaping, tool that made us proud to be Kiwis.

And although there were adverts, that didn’t seem to change the types of programmes that were screened – there were plenty of documentaries, pointy-headed interview programmes, children’s programmes and lots of NZ made wildlife documentaries. There were even programmes about artists and art!

Before we get too misty-eyed about the old days though, remember that there was very little diversity, prime-time Māori programming stopped at Billy T James, and everyone wore frightfully plain suits.

In the 80s, a big shake-up changed the structure of television and began the incremental cuts that have gradually weakened TVNZ, taking it from the BBC to a US style commercial network.

NZ On Airnzoa.png

Back in the 1980s TVNZ used to decide what programmes to make, and then choose when to screen them. They were a public service so they knew best what to make and when to play it. This is how the BBC, ABC, CBC and every other public broadcaster around the world still operates.

But in NZ, the funding of programmes was separated. NZ On Air was created to take care of the ‘public service’ but - choose what to make, and fund it. While TVNZ was left to focus more and more on being a successful commercial TV channel.

The change created an odd form of corporate welfare that entitles TV3, Prime and Choice to access the public purse to screen public service programmes. Other countries just force their commercial channels to play public service programmes or they lose their license.

Over time this unique setup has failed as the documentaries, the arts programmes, the kidult shows etc have disappeared from our screens (see box below).

That’s because NZ On Air, who are responsible for public media in NZ, can’t control the commercial channels. TV3 and TVNZ just screen whatever will make money (eyeballs=adverts=$$$). NZ On Air are powerless.

But NZ On Air still has to spend the money the Government gives them for public service television so they have to fund less effective content like the GC, NZ’s Got Talent and a fancy cooking show.

It’s interesting to note that RNZ which is still funded in the old-fashioned way with an annual lump of money, has stayed a public service media organisation. If TVNZ were funded in the same way perhaps it would be more like the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK.

The Charter

tvnz.jpgIn 2003 the Government brought in the Charter. It was a way to require TVNZ to retain a fig-leaf of public service content over its naked commercialism and the Government compensated them for lost income with several millions of dollars.

Sadly, the naturalists at TVNZ preferred naked commercialism and made a mockery of the Charter with ludicrous claims like Police Ten 7 was a Māori kaupapa programme. The Charter was widely seen as unworkable and when the government changed the Charter was ‘gone by lunchtime’.

Māori Television

Maori TV.png

Māori TV is great but is it public media? Māori TV does play a few international docos and films but it’s really focussed on strengthening Te Reo Māori. That’s a public service in itself, but there are plenty of other public service styles of television that don’t air on Māori TV. Programmes for other races for example.

So it’s public media for just a part of New Zealand, but that doesn’t weaken it. It’s a reminder that the rest of New Zealand deserves to be catered for in the same way.

TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7

Another initiative from the Government that brought us the Charter and this one worked better – TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 were digital only channels available on Freeview. TVNZ 6 screened kids programmes and TVNZ 7 specialised in news and information programmes, and both channels were advert-free. Later they were combined into one channel (TVNZ 7) with children’s television in the day and factual programmes in the evening.

Both incarnations were fantastic.Save TVNZ 7 badge.jpg

By day parents could leave their kids to watch for a while knowing their kids wouldn’t come away with American accents and screaming for a happy combo meal. By night adults could watch informative, brain stimulating programmes that treated them with respect.

Despite the Save TVNZ 7 campaign that gathered 36,000 signatures and held two protest marches, both were closed down by the Government.

The Lost Generation

There’s a generation of Kiwis who have grown up not knowing what public service television is. We only find out what we’ve been missing when we do our OE in the UK or Australia (or Canada, US, France, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia or one of the many countries with public service TV channels).

TV Genres Extinct in NZ

  • arts programmes
  • science programmes
  • programmes for people over 50
  • regional news and current affairs
  • natural history
  • kidult drama
  • educational television

Extinction Watchlist 

  • investigative journalism
  • documentaries
  • children’s television
  • political debates
  • quiz shows
  • chat shows

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