As the sassy, flame-haired co-host of Nightline, Belinda Todd was a journalist's dream, and a conservative's nightmare. The Listener variously called her "TV3's secret weapon", and "a dayglo personality on the rampage", and even went so far as to pronounce that her Nightline items were "based extremely loosely on fact, about things like bovine flatulence and the greenhouse effect, exploding sheep, and the mysterious disappearance of Phar Lap's genitals".
Todd helped win Nightline a devoted following — and for Todd the occasional nasty letter and strange package in the mail.
"The hardest thing in television is to get a show that people will feel strongly about," said Todd in 1990. "Television's such a passive medium. It happens to you. So if you can get the audience to actually care, one way or the other, I think it's good."
At school in Christchurch Todd was strong on science, and had ambitions to be a doctor. But "sick of being educated", she chose instead to join Radio New Zealand as a copywriter. Todd honed her writing skills at radio stations in Masterton and Invercargill.
She began doing voice work at Auckland's Radio Hauraki, then became creative director at rival station 89FM. She moved into television in the late 80s as a presenter on Communicado magazine show That's Fairly Interesting. Todd debuted in the second series, and was holidaying in New York before the third began when she got a call from TV3, asking her to audition as a weather presenter.
The new channel went to air in November 1989; Todd can be seen handling weather duties in the closing minutes of the first prime time bulletin, on 27 November 1989. When late night news show Nightline was launched the following April, Todd became co-host. The show's format saw Joanna Paul presenting hard news in the first two segments. After that, "gloves-off time and we have a bit of fun", as news and current affairs head Rod Pederson put it; the fun being Belinda Todd, with Paul joining in to play the straight act. As Paul put it: "The beauty was it was two chicks, not the banal banter of a pseudo hubby-wife on-screen combo".
The show's offbeat, liberal attitude was partly due to the comparative youth of its key players: originating producer Susan Baldacci (then 28), Paul (28), Todd (26). Baldacci added that Nightline's late time slot meant that standing out was a necessity. "When you're on at 10:30 at night you have to give people a reason to stay up. You can't just be an ordinary news programme."
Having said that, even Baldacci was surprised at some of the places Todd could take an item. When Baldacci offered Todd a "cutesy animal story" on the birth of a hippopotamus, Todd went on air and said "imagine trying to get it back in again", while footage of the birth played in reverse. Todd argued that much of the show's humour drew on topics people already talked and thought about, but wouldn't normally say out loud. "People think these things. People think farting is funny. They just won't admit it".
The day TV3 was placed temporarily in receivership in May 1990, five months after launch, Todd toured the offices on-air for a "let's go shopping" piece, accompanied by the grim reaper. TV3 lived on to fight another ratings day; Todd argued later that the receivership ironically made her job easier, by creating much needed goodwill for the channel.
Todd went on to cameo in the climactic party finale of Peter Jackson classic Braindead, playing a woman who gets her heart ripped out. She later featured the film on Nightline, presenting the piece with a mouth full of fake blood.
In December 1991 Joanna Paul left TV3, and Todd was set to end her duties as primetime weather presenter so she could concentrate on Nightline. In an article outlining the changes, TV3 spokesman Wilson Owen described her as one of the television finds of the past few years.
When Nightline kicked off again in 1992, Todd was joined by another master of the ad lib: Gary McCormick, who had been charged with creating a special Bureau de Kiwi Affairs. "She's very assertive," said McCormick after watching her throw a gift of flowers on the floor, the first night they were on-air together. "Some men are afraid of her, and quite frankly I'm a little afraid of her myself."
Post Nightline, Todd starred in Melody Rules. Unfortunately Melody didn't, and in later years Todd showed little hesitation in nodding along with those who regarded the show as a low point in local comedy — although she also recalls that before it went to air, "they liked it so much they commissioned extras". Many viewers were surprised that the so-called "Nightline vamp" was playing the nurturing big sister role, of a conscientious career woman trying to rein in her wayward siblings. In an April 1995 Listener article, timed for the show's debut, TV3 executive Geoff Steven said that originally Todd "wasn't first choice for Melody. We looked at her for one of the other roles. But she gave one of the most intelligent performances of the whole auditioning process."
Todd went on to work behind the scenes on a number of Communicado documentaries and reality shows, in various roles. She wrote episodes of series Life Goes On, based around survivors of traumatic experiences, and city meets country reality show City Girls, and produced Car Crazy and 2003 radio marriage doco Radio Brides. In 2010 she was among those returning to celebrate Nightline's 20th anniversary.
These days Todd is based in Los Angeles, where she concentrates on screenwriting.
Mary Crockett, 'Melody giggles, okay?' - The Listener, 1 April 1995, page 24
Douglas Jenkin, 'Life in the Zoo' - The Listener (TV Times section), 5 November 1990, page 32
Sarah Lang, '3's company' - The NZ Herald, 23 November 2009
Finlay MacDonald, 'She's Got Front' (Interview) - The Listener (TV Times section), 11 June 1990, page 32
Tracey Palmer and NZPA, 'TV3 loses newsreader, Nightline co-host' - The Evening Post, 23 December 1991
Ian Pryor, ' A little touch of Gary in the night' TV Week (Evening Post pullout) 24 February 1992, page 3
Dan Satherley, 'Belinda Todd: How going broke saved TV3' (Video Interview) Newshub website. Loaded 28 November 2014. Accessed 23 May 2016