NZ On Air Top 20

NZ On Air began funding local content in 1989. Timing in with the launch of a new funding system, this collection looks back at the 20 most watched NZ On Air-funded programmes over the years (aside from news and sports). Ratings information is only available from 1995, so this is how things have shaped up from 1995 to 2016 — plus some bonus titles. Most of the Top 20 has been captioned. Ex NZ On Air exec Kathryn Quirk tells us here how the complete list rated, while original NZOA boss Ruth Harley remembers how it all began.

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New Zealand's Got Talent - 2012 Final

Television, 2012 (Excerpts)

This Kiwi version of the Got Talent franchise scoured Aotearoa "on a mission to find a star". Topping the weekly TV ratings, the TV One series was hosted by weatherman Tamati Coffey, with Rachel Hunter, musician Jason Kerrison (Opshop) and UB40 frontman Ali Campbell as the judges. In this opening excerpt of the 2012 final, the last two contestants are chosen: people’s choice Dudley Fairbrass, and judge’s choice Logan Walker. They join 10 other finalists — including eventual winner, 15-year-old Clara van Wel from Blenheim — to compete for $100,000 and a Toyota Corolla. 

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Billy T James - A Celebration

Television, 1995 (Full Length)

Having made a comeback after heart surgery in 1990, legendary entertainer Billy T James passed away in August 1991. Four years later that anniversary was commemorated with Billy T James - A Celebration. Hosted by Pio Terei, the special highlights some of Billy’s best moments of both comedy gold, and his vast talents as musician. Interviews with Billy T and his colleagues (including showband veteran Robbie Ratana, comedian Peter Rowley, and screen wife Ilona Rodgers) offer insight into the real man behind arguably New Zealand’s most beloved entertainer.

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Dare to Be Free

Television, 2004 (Full Length)

During World War ll South Islander Sandy Thomas was fighting in Crete, when he was wounded and captured by the German Army. Unwilling to spend the war in custody he repeatedly plotted escape from hospital, to the point his Houdini efforts became a running joke among his captors. Nevertheless a successful escape attempt from the Salonika Prisoner of War camp would have him fleeing across the continent on his wounded leg, in an attempt to reunite with his comrades. Now retired, having reached the rank of Major General, Walter Babington Thomas recounts his escapades.

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Billy

Television, 2011 (Excerpts)

Directed by Peter Burger (Until Proven Innocent), this top-rating tele-feature dramatised the life story of legendary comedian Billy T James. Billy screened on 21 August 2011 as a Sunday Theatre drama on TV One, 20 years after Billy T’s death, aged just 42. Actor Tainui Tukiwaho (Step Dave) plays Billy T. Touted as revealing "the man behind the chuckle", the drama traverses Billy T’s life from childhood. This excerpt follows Billy as he reaches the peak of his career, fronting TV skits and pub stand-up.  It was adapted by Briar Grace Smith and Dave Armstrong from the Matt Elliott biography.

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South - First Episode

Television, 2009 (Full Length Episode)

Host Marcus Lush called this 2009 series a "love letter" to the characters and stories of the south. In this first episode he sleeps over on Dog Island (where he learns a lighthouse doesn’t have curved beds). Then it’s down to Stewart Island to join "Robin’s teepee cult" and meet Mason Bay whānau, and back to the Aucklander's adopted hometown of Bluff to chat with artistic beachcombers. South continued JAM TV’s winning collaboration with Lush (Off the Rails, ICE). At the 2010 Qantas Awards, the series collected gongs for best presenter and for director Melanie Rakena.

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Showcase - 1996 Grand Final

Television, 1996 (Full Length Episode)

The Grand Final of this 1996 musical talent quest series Showcase was hosted by Ian Fraser. The nine finalists perform songs from Mozart on guitar, to 'Everything’s Gonna Be Alright'. The opening act is Akustik Fungi: Jason Kerrison, one half of the duo, would later find fame as singer for chart-topping band Opshop, and return the favour as a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent. The Showcase judges are Sir Howard Morrison, actor Rima Te Wiata, Dame Malvina Major (who performs) and Eddie Rayner (who got his break on TV talent show New Faces, while part of Split Enz).

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Once Were Warriors

Film, 1994 (Trailer, Excerpts, and Extras)

Once Were Warriors opened the eyes of cinemagoers around the globe to an unexamined aspect of modern New Zealand life. Director Lee Tamahori's hard-hitting depiction of domestic and gang violence amongst an urban Māori whānau was adapted from the best-selling Alan Duff novel. The film provided career-defining roles for Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen as Jake the Muss and Beth Heke. It remains NZ's most watched local release in terms of bums on seats. Among a trio of backgrounders, Riwia Brown writes about adapting Duff's book for the screen.

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New Zealand's Got Talent - 2013 Final

Television, 2013 (Excerpts)

TV One gave Aotearoa the chance to show it’s ‘got talent’ via two top-rating series of the UK-spawned format. This excerpt from the final of the 2013 season is the opening segment, where the last of the finalists are found, and host Tamati Coffey introduces the  judges: model/actor Rachel Hunter, musician Jason Kerrison and international guest, choreographer Cris Judd (J.Lo's ex). The performers, ranging from a hip hop dance crew to an opera singer, compete for a Toyota RAV4 and $100,000 cash. The eventual winner was Renee Maurice from Wellington.

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North - First Episode

Television, 2011 (Full Length Episode)

This 2011 series has idiosyncratic host Marcus Lush roving over the northern tip of the North Island (from Auckland up). The first episode finds the self-confessed Jafa exploring all things Manukau Harbour: “this is something I’ve always wanted to do – arrive in Auckland by ship!”. Lush meets lighthouse lovers,  learns about shipwrecks and World War II Japanese subs, goes shark tagging, travels by waka to a small island, and talks Mangere Bridge with comedian Jon Gadsby. North was the follow-up to JAM TV’s award-winning 2009 series South, also fronted by Lush.

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Pioneer House - First Episode

Television, 2001 (Full Length)

In the first episode of this reality series, groundwork is done to allow a 21st century family to live for 10 weeks as their forbears did in 1900. The right house has been found — but the largely unmodernised Grey Lynn worker's cottage still needs an army of workers and consultants to muck in and turn it into a fully functioning home of the era. Meanwhile, the family search has produced the Feyens from Palmerston North. They appear ready for the challenge but the realities of different standards of housework, hygiene, and clothing are slowly dawning.

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Our Oldest Soldier

Television, 2002 (Full Length)

Lawrence 'Curly' Blyth volunteered for World War 1 despite being under age. In 1916 his rifle brigade was sent to the Western Front, where he fought for 23 days amongst the mud of the Somme. In the final weeks of WW1 Blyth helped liberate the strategic French town of Le Quesnoy from German forces, later winning a French Legion of Honour for his efforts. In this documentary his grandson, director David Blyth, uses interviews and stock footage to chronicle the times at war of his bossy yet personable grandad, who died in 2001, aged 105.

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40 Years of Country Calendar

Television, 2005 (Full Length Episode)

This best of special culls history and highlights from 40 seasons of the longest running show on NZ television. Farming, forestry and fishing are all on the roster, but this edition is as much about observing people and the land. There is footage of high country musters, helicopter deer capture, floods and blizzards, as well as radio-controlled dogs and mice farmers. Longtime Country Calendar figures like John Gordon and Tony Trotter share their memories, and the show sets out to catch up again with some of the colourful New Zealanders that have featured on screen.

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The Two of Us

Television, 1997 (Full Length)

Twins are afflicted with a strange power: the power to make others stare. Presented by singer Jackie Clarke, herself a twin, this documentary grabs a fascinating topic with both hands. Among those interviewed are two sets of twins who are romantically involved, a family with twin sets of twins, and an uncanny pair of older women whose thoughts seem to run in tandem, every time they turn up on screen. There is talk of the close relationships twins have, identical medical misaventures, tricks paid on the unsuspecting, and how fathers are often less able to tell twins apart.

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Private Lives of Little People

Television, 1998 (Full Length)

Ron Morrison is secretly dreading the  ‘dating years’. Rebecca and Kevin have their home, their dog and more love to share, possibly with a baby. Holly Morrison isn’t that bothered with boys yet, but she is determined to pass her South American dance exam. This high-rating documentary examines the physical and emotional challenges of being a ‘little person’— someone living with achondroplasia, the most common cause of dwarfism. Ron, Holly, Rebecca and Kevin are determined to grasp opportunities, although Ron’s conflict of emotions is especially poignant.

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The Irish Connection

Television, 1999 (Full Length)

This high-rating 1999 documentary follows Gary McCormick to Ireland to investigate "those strands which tie" Kiwis to the Emerald Isle, from Dublin to the north, where his forebears originated in the 1870s. He meets locals, (musicians, tinkers, playwrights, scuba divers) and Kiwi expats, and talks The Troubles, Celtic Tigers, and why Irish emigrated to Aotearoa. Irish Connection was another collaboration between McCormick and director Bruce Morrison (Heartland, Raglan by the Sea). Companion title The London Connection saw McCormick examining Kiwi links to London. 

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Letter to Blanchy - A Dinner Down Under

Television, 1994 (Excerpts)

Letter to Blanchy was an old-fashioned backblocks comedy, which centered on the bumblings of a trio of mates living in a fictional small town: intellectual Derek (David McPhail), rough-diamond Barry (Jon Gadsby) and tradesman Ray (Peter Rowley). In this excerpt from the second episode, the lads plan a "traditional" hangi for local gentleman Len. Amongst much non-PC humour, railway irons are proposed in place of hot stones, pasta in place of pig, and a keg disrupts preparations. Hole-digging is much debated in the usual Kiwi bloke way.

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Tangiwai - A Love Story

Television, 2011 (Trailer and Excerpts)

Christmas Eve 1953: Cricketer Bob Blair (Ryan O'Kane) is in South Africa, days away from batting for New Zealand. His fiancée Nerissa Love (Maddigan's Quest's Rose McIver) is boarding an ill-fated train, which in this excerpt will plunge into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, in the country's worst rail disaster. The Dominion Post's Linda Burgess found this TV movie retelling of the tragic romance "first-rate", noting "consistently excellent" performances from O'Kane, McIver, and Miranda Harcourt as Nerissa's wary mother. Tangiwai won four NZ TV awards, including best cinematography.

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Global Radar - First Episode

Television, 2011 (Full Length Episode)

In this 2011 series Te Radar re-teams with company JAM TV (Off the Radar, Radar’s Patch) to meet people making a difference to sustainability issues. This first episode sees the comedian exploring green motoring: he visits a Kiwi project to make potato starch wing mirrors for a Nottingham F3 racing team; checks out the Trekka (the only NZ designed and mass-produced car) with journalist Todd Niall; rides a battery-powered Citroën in Whangarei, and tinkers with his Dad’s Land Rover. The first season won a 2012 NZ Television Award for Best Information Series.

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Shortland Street - Kirsty and Lionel's wedding

Television, 1994 (Full Length Episode)

Iconic serial drama Shortland Street is based around the births, deaths and marriages of the staff, family and patients of the eponymous hospital. This 1994 cliffhanger episode, written by Rachel Lang, features the wedding between receptionist Kirsty and muffin man Lionel. But will hunky Stuart be able to deny his love for Kirsty? Countless familiar characters appear; and three actors who have since launched Hollywood careers — Temuera Morrison, Martin Henderson, and Marton Csokas — as Dr Ropata, Stuart Neilson, and Leonard Dodds respectively.

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Lew Pryme - Welcome to my World

Television, 1990 (Full Length)

Lew Pryme's life was a wild ride that took in everything from rock and roll to rugby before it was cut short by AIDS in 1990 (he was 51). This moving documentary interviews an ailing Pryme reflecting on his journey and (still secret) sexuality; it follows him from Waitara to becoming one of the most popular hip-swinging music stars of the 60s. He went on to manage singers Mark Williams, Rob Guest and Tina Cross; and in the early 80s he became the first executive director of Auckland Rugby Union, introducing cheerleaders and 'pizazz' to Eden Park.