A History of Television in New Zealand

By Roger Horrocks

The beginnings

Television reached New Zealand in 1960, later than many parts of the world. It was an expensive medium for a small country, and our uneven terrain made it difficult to get a clear signal to some areas.

At first there were four regional stations which shared programmes. They were combined as one national network in 1969. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon that year, an estimated 1.5 million New Zealanders watched the event on television.

Colour arrived in time for the 1974 Commonwealth Games. That was the year a second channel – TV2, known for a while as South Pacific Television – was created.

Politicians love to argue about television, and they have restructured the system many times. Control of the two channels changed from the NZBS (1960) to the NZBC (1962), to TV One and TV2 (1975), to the BCNZ in 1976, and finally to TVNZ (1980). TVNZ was restructured as a State-Owned Enterprise in 1988, then as a Crown-Owned Company in 2001.

'Public service' or 'commercial'?

New Zealand began by adopting the BBC’s 'public service' approach – non-commercial broadcasting which offered a diversity of programmes to “inform , educate and entertain”. This was funded by an annual licence fee (initially six pounds and 10 shillings per home).

Within a year, New Zealand television began screening commercials to provide additional funding. At first advertising took up seven minutes per hour, but half the week remained ad-free. Advertising has gradually increased, so that commercials now occupy about 12 to 14 minutes per hour on the main free-to-air channels. The only ad-free time is Sunday morning, plus a few public holidays. The licence fee was abolished in 1999. The main funding for New Zealand’s free-to-air channels (ie its non-subscription, non-pay channels) comes from advertising.

Programmes

In the early days it was assumed that Kiwi viewers would want to watch an equal percentage of programmes from Britain and the United States. But the US has become a more popular source and now provides about half our programmes. Australian dramas have also increased in popularity, starting with soap operas such as The Young Doctors and Neighbours.

In recent years New Zealand programmes have made up between a quarter and a third of what is screened on the six main free-to-air channels (between 6am and midnight). TV One carries the most local content, though TV2, TV3 and other channels also have some popular local programmes.

New Zealand has never had quotas for local content – in contrast to Australia, where it has to make up 55% of the programming on free-to-air channels  between 6am and midnight.

The New Zealand public has always strongly supported local programmes – such as news and current affairs, sports, information series such as Country Calendar and Fair Go, plus Radio with Pictures, Dancing with the Stars, Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune, bro'Town, What Now? and dramas based on the work of writers such as Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee.

But the market is not a level playing field for local production. Even though our programme makers have learned to work in a very economical way, it costs more to make programmes locally than to import them from overseas. This is because British and American programmes can cover their production costs in their own markets, after which they are happy to pick up a little extra revenue by selling them cheaply to small countries such as New Zealand.

Because television is such an important part of our culture, public subsidy is essential to maintain a healthy range of local programmes – hence the existence of the funding body NZ On Air, which was established in 1989.

A diverse production industry has developed, which includes both large companies experienced in the making of long-running drama and comedy series, and smaller companies which specialise in a particular genre such as the documentary.

Many channels

The first privately-owned channel, TV3, arrived in 1989. Since then the number of channels has grown like topsy, and a range of specialised or 'niche' audiences has developed. 'Broadcasting' has lost ground to 'narrowcasting'.

SKY became New Zealand's first 'pay television' service in 1990, and today it offers more than 100 channels via a digital satellite. It competes fiercely with the free-to-air channels for the exclusive rights to sporting events.

Māori Television began transmission in 2004, and added a second (Te Reo) channel in 2008. The regional channels include Canterbury Television and Triangle (now Face TV) which arrived in 1999, and eventually began broadcasting on Sky Television. The Freeview platform was launched in 2007; it included TVNZ6 (later replaced by youth Channel U) and TVNZ7, both now off air. TVNZ Heartland ran on Sky from 2010 to 2015.

New technology

As technology has evolved rapidly, the process of making programmes has changed. The first programmes were studio-based. In the 1980s videotape replaced film, and satellites brought instant news from round the world. In the following decade, digital equipment revolutionised camera work and editing. Lightweight digital cameras were a great asset for documentary-making. Meanwhile, digital recorders able to 'zap' commercials made things more difficult for the advertising industry.

New Zealand completed the switch to digital transmission by late 2013. High-definition images and wider screens (such as the 16:9 ratio) are becoming the norm.

Streamed or 'on demand' television first began in New Zealand through TVNZ, in 2007. It is now available via the major TV networks, plus companies like Quickflix, Netflix and Lightbox.

As the internet grows in importance, television is being forced to re-think all its habits. There is lively debate about how this medium should adapt and evolve in a society now dominated by laptops, computer games and mobile phones.

Other information

History of Television at TVNZ

Many programmes on NZ On Screen are relevant to this history, such as:

Video interviews covering many aspects of NZ television history can be found in our 'ScreenTalk' section.

For more historical details