Allan Martin was a dominant figure in New Zealand television from the early 60s to the mid 80s. After learning his trade in England, he developed highly successful and influential programmes for the NZBC in the mid 60s. Headhunted by the ABC, but returned home to become Director-General (the equivalent of Chief Executive) of South Pacific Television and TVNZ.
Martin was born in Auckland in 1926, and educated in Whangarei. He went on to serve in the intelligence section of the NZ Occupation Force in Japan from 1947-48. Afterwards a farming career beckoned. But army friend Bob Irvine was the NZBC’s chief announcer at Whangarei station 1ZN; he encouraged Martin into on-air work (which he managed alongside milking 90 cows).
In 1952, after taking a mob of cattle on a ship from England to Africa, plans to work at the South African Broadcasting Corporation were dumped in favour of joining an international shortwave station in Mozambique (which had long been a territory of Portugal). Three years later he was invited to London, to join Associated-Rediffusion (later Thames Television). There he began directing and producing current affairs, often on tight deadlines. He also helmed everything from children's films to detective series No Hiding Place.
In October 1963 Martin joined WNTV-1 in Wellington, initially as supervisor of current affairs. Alan Morris had returned from Associated-Rediffusion himself, and invited Martin to join him. The pair provided the fledgling local industry with much needed expertise; their careers would intertwine for the next two decades.
Martin was instrumental in developing weekly current affairs programme Compass, which debuted in October 1964. Compass director John Terris remembers Martin as “quietly subversive”; as a man who gathered “a group of fiercely independent people to kick off current affairs television in New Zealand”, then taught his interviewers to never “accept the first answer to a question at face value”. Compass provided NZ television's first local viewpoint on politically sensitive topics, both home and overseas. As Martin mentions in this video interview — conducted when he was 90 — bureaucracy and a lack of resources ruled broadcasting in this period. He still savours a memo from 1964 showing that a request for a research subscription to Time magazine made it to the Director-General of the NZBC, before being rejected.
In 1965 Alan Morris headed to Australia, and Martin took over as chief producer. His next project left an indelible mark on NZ television. Town and Around was the NZBC’s first nightly regional news programme. After a trial in Wellington, it was quickly rolled out to the other main centres. Providing audiences with their first look at local news, it also became an invaluable training ground: many who started on the show dominated the industry for years to come.
The first act of Allan Martin’s television career ended in January 1967. He resigned and crossed the Tasman, telling The Auckland Star of “a golden opportunity to soak in more knowledge and stretch out a bit. I don’t want to become dull and stale”.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation had tapped him to develop their first nightly current affairs programme. The ABC justified their appointment of a Kiwi by saying they needed a “hard solid TV pro” and no one local could match Martin’s credentials.
This Day Tonight would achieve legendary status in Australian current affairs, as the first show to regularly take the hard questions to politicians. Martin later told North and South that, like Town and Around, it was “modelled on the BBC programme Tonight, so I’m not claiming originality for what I did, but both programmes were fantastically successful”. This Day Tonight ran until 1978, and Martin was given a special Logie Award for Current Affairs Production. He also did four years as executive producer of investigative show Four Corners, and was voted president of the Australian Producers and Directors Guild. Some of the stories that screened in this period may have been too daring for his bosses; more than once he was called to explain himself before senior executives.
By 1974, Martin held one of the most powerful jobs in Australian TV, as head of ABC public affairs television. He had ultimate responsibility for all ABC's major current affairs programming. Then he accepted what he saw as an even greater challenge back in NZ, as Director-General of the new second channel, in a major reorganisation of NZ TV. It was “a rare opportunity to start from scratch and build an organisation along the lines of how one feels it should go … Something like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world”.
His appointment was noted approvingly by Auckland Star TV critic Barry Shaw, who concluded that “no other NZ born television man had quite as much to offer”. Former colleague Alan Morris had also been lured back from Australia, and he became Martin’s counterpart at TV One. Both recognised that competition was important, but would be destructive if taken too far. The pair never exchanged a single memo, preferring to resolve issues over the phone.
Martin rechristened his network South Pacific Television, to celebrate the fact “we no longer look back with covetous eyes on our European origins”. He gave himself five years to turn SPTV into “a world class, internationally recognised system”. The network faced enormous pressures from the outset. It needed to be created from scratch before it could even begin to challenge TV One’s dominance of an audience used to single channel viewing.
Within his five year target, Martin could point to a resolutely local network that had announced itself with the hugely successful first Telethon in June 1975 (Martin flew to Perth, and won agreement to borrow the format). Hoping to make shows that were strong enough to sell overseas, Martin invited John McRae back from England to set up the second channel's new drama department. Over the next few years the channel's successes included dramas Hunter’s Gold, The Mackenzie Affair, Ngaio Marsh Theatre and Children of Fire Mountain. Many were successfully exported. Comedy legend David McPhail has argued that Kiwi comedy breakthrough A Week of It was only allowed to continue past its first season due to Martin's personal intervention.
The competing channels were due to run their course. Since his election in 1975, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon had been openly hostile to a model which he saw as financially unsound and wasteful in its duplication of resources.
From February 1980, TV1 and SPTV became a complementary two channel service as TVNZ. Alan Morris was appointed head of production with responsibility for all local programmes for TV1 and TV2. Later that year a further reorganisation saw Martin given overall control as Director-General, while Alan Morris, as his deputy, oversaw network services which included programming, sales, engineering and marketing. For Martin, the immediate challenge was for the organisation to find unity, and let go of "past rivalries".
Martin continued with TVNZ until 1985 when, after 10 years, he decided at age 60 that he’d been in the role long enough. The announcement came in the same week Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story won a Feltex Award as best documentary of the year. Keen to preserve the memories of surviving Gallipoli veterans, Martin produced the 70 minute documentary, and handpicked the filmmaking team. Earlier he overcame opposition to make Touch and Go, on the WWII defence of Crete by Allied Forces. It was a co-production between TVNZ and a company run by BAFTA-winning producer Jeremy Isaacs (The World at War).
The end of Martin's tenure marked a watershed as the dominance of programme makers in management positions began to fade, and the concept of public service television started to grow more fraught in an increasingly commercial environment.
Soon after being awarded an OBE in 1987 for services to broadcasting, Martin joined the Board of Directors for the Auckland Commonwealth Games. Martin had been invited to chair the media committee, which oversaw the creation of adequate facilities for journalists.
Plans to become a ferry skipper got sidelined when Sky TV founder Craig Heatley invited Martin to become the new cable channel's executive director. Martin used his contacts to negotiate content deals, including securing the rights to screen news network CNN from media mogul Ted Turner. Later he did two years as a member of the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
At the 2002 Qantas Television Awards, Martin received the Broadcasting Industry Award for Outstanding Achievement.
In 2006, at the age of 80, he completed a doctorate at the University of Auckland. His PhD thesis on the potential for older people to contribute to social change later won publication.
Martin recalls having worked in television through decades of revolutionary change in society — the "pivotal years" being the period between 1955 and 1985. He argues that television was a key element in fostering these changes — "press and radio were taking their lead from television".
Profile written by Michael Higgins