Neil Roberts began his career as a print and television journalist, then founded independent production company Communicado, whose output ranged from documentaries to the classic movie Once Were Warriors.
Over his career he would establish a reputation for fostering and encouraging talent, including producer Julie Christie, journalists Carol Hirschfeld and Anita McNaught, and presenter Mikey Havoc. In 1997 Roberts returned to Television New Zealand as the organisation's Television Manager, before passing away the following year.
Roberts grew up in the North Island town of Wanganui, where his father ran a machinery business. At the age of 16 he became a cub reporter at the local newspaper. Journalism would take him to Fleet Street in London, and to the parliamentary press gallery; he was writing and sub-editing for music magazine Melody Maker the year Hendrix and Jim Morrison died. After returning to New Zealand, Roberts joined the Auckland Star, then spent a year in radio.
In 1975 he began working in state television. Three years later Roberts began filing stories for flagship current affairs show Eyewitness (Eyewitness News came later). At Eyewitness he "learned about writing, directing and producing, and loved it".
In 1981, after criticism from Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, Roberts' TVNZ employers broadcast an apology over an Eyewitness report by him which examined the merits of National Education Minister Merv Wellington, and opposition spokesman Russell Marshall. Roberts quit in disgust, after expressing that disgust to his superior with legendary gusto.
He began making corporate videos with his then partner, ex-Eyewitness reporter Karen Sims. Contrary to the many accounts which draw a direct line from closing the door on TVNZ to kick-starting his own TV empire, Roberts later argued that creating his own company was an accident, caused partly by rising volumes of work.
Communicado - which began in the mid-80s - soon grew to become one of the country's most successful independent production companies, at one point employing more than 100 people. It was one of the first independent companies to specialize in popular factual TV programming. Roberts was chairman, working initially alongside fellow company directors Robin Scholes, Garry McAlpine, and his brother Murray Roberts.
Communicado's productions ranged across business and tourism videos, advertising, and a run of magazine programmes and TV documentaries. Some of the company's work - like the Roberts-narrated ANZ Magic Minutes spots - blurred traditional lines between advertising and journalism.
TV shows included Heroes, Mud and Glory, That's Fairly Interesting, Magic Kiwis, and New Zealand at War, an account of New Zealand's role in WWII. In the process Communicado's television work developed a reputation for being energetic, upbeat, and for some, unashamedly populist. Roberts riposte to high-brow critics was that television and journalism are ultimately about clarity, and that "a lot of people mistake simplicity and clarity for being downmarket".
In 1993 Roberts worked with Louise Callan on a critical documentary about Robert Muldoon (subtitled The Grim Face of Power). The following year the company released its first feature, Kiwi cinematic landmark Once Were Warriors. Scholes produced.
Thirteen ideas-filled years later, Roberts sold his stake in Communicado, arguing he needed a rest. Communicado would later merge with Australian production company Screentime. These days the Screentime title has taken centre-stage.
In 1997 Roberts rejoined TVNZ as Television Manager. As part of his job application, he wrote a 50-page vision paper advocating more New Zealand content across the board: the title was "Great New Zealand Television". He hoped to bring "creative energy" and change to TVNZ.
Once installed, Roberts closed the loss-making Horizon regional stations, and tried to attract younger viewers with an MTV channel, through which he introduced radio host Mikey Havoc to television. Roberts set about changing TVNZ's management structure, while returning to old traditions of designating a specific programmer for each channel.
His TVNZ reign was controversial, and he quit in April of 1998, after conflicts with the chair of the TVNZ board. Neil Roberts died of cancer in November of that year.