Irene Gardiner began her career as a journalist at Wellington's Dominion newspaper, then later "stumbled into becoming a television producer". In 1984, she became a publicist at the TVNZ publicity department at Avalon. An interest in TV production developed from there, and in 1986 she became a trainee producer/director, working in Avalon's music unit on shows like Ready to Roll, Radio with Pictures and True Colours.
It was an exciting time to be putting music on television: Ready to Roll, which showcased New Zealand's latest hits, often topped the ratings, while beloved Sunday night show Radio with Pictures played more alternative fare. It was only later that Gardiner realised just how lucky she was to be there. "I was meeting legendary rock stars — we interviewed people like Mick Jagger, BB King and Joni Mitchell ... I didn't even think about how incredible that was."
In 1989, Gardiner set up an Auckland branch office for the music unit. The following year she moved from directing music shows to her first producing gig: children's TV show 3.45 LIVE! (then in its second season), followed by The Bugs Bunny Show (1991). "I was very lucky; I had two particularly good front people in Hinemoa Elder and Phil Keoghan, who's gone on to become an international megastar ... even at that very early stage, they were great."
Short stints followed at the independent production companies Communicado (doing programme development and corporate videos) and The Gibson Group (arts series The Edge).
In 1994 Gardiner returned to TVNZ, to launch TV2's late night news programme Newsnight. Embracing irreverence at a time when news was still played very straight, the show featured the talents of a young Marcus Lush, and became something of a cult favourite, after overcoming major media resistance. "For the first few months it was tough," says Gardiner. "We were really under siege. But then that lovely thing happened ... maybe a third to halfway through the year, everything started to change. People started to accept that actually the show was kind of cool: it was doing interesting things; Marcus was very strong."
The following year (1995) Gardiner took over the running of TVNZ's internal production unit in Auckland. With the trend towards independent production at the time, the unit initially handled just two shows — Maggie's Garden Show and Open Home. Gardiner produced both, and also worked on programme development.
"The unit grew and grew as I got more experienced," she says. "I was learning, and we were developing the unit at the same time." During her six years in charge, the TVNZ production unit grew from two shows to roughly 30 a year — including popular series such as Taste New Zealand, Home Front, United Travel Getaway, Real Food for Real People with Jo Seagar, Mountain Dew on the Edge, Havoc and Newsboy's Sell-Out Tour, plus many one-off specials and documentaries. The role brought with it the challenge of being "the meat in the sandwich" between programme-makers, and commercial pressures to find audiences.
The TVNZ production unit had a particular focus on lifestyle programmes. One of the titles Gardiner devised in this period was gardening make-over series Mucking In, hosted by Jim Mora. As Gardiner says in this video interview, "It was just very rewarding: having loved the concept, worked ages to get it to happen, and then it really flew." She loved how the show mixed gardening with a "good will, feel good" element, whereby deserving members of the community were rewarded.
Ironically by the time Mucking In finally began its long run, Gardiner had been promoted to Commissioning Editor at TV ONE, before rising to become Head of Commissioning across TV ONE and TV2. The toughest part of the job, she found, was "90 per cent of the time you're saying 'no' to people". Thankfully Gardiner also made some noteworthy yeses: among them prestige documentary series Captain's Log, Kiwi pop music primer Give it a Whirl, and ambitious history series Frontier of Dreams — plus reality shows Pioneer House, Border Patrol and Piha Rescue, and documentaries 1951, Children of Gallipoli, and No Mean Feat.
In 2003 Gardiner left TVNZ, to freelance as a television consultant and executive producer. Since then she has worked on series How's Life?, the second season of Give It A Whirl, Eye to Eye with Willie Jackson, and Prime's 50 Years of New Zealand Television, plus a number of one-off documentaries — including award nominated quake chronicle Help is On the Way (2020).
In January 2009, Gardiner took up her role as Content Director of NZ On Screen. She left the job in late 2016. "I felt when I left that I was leaving it in good shape," she said at the time. "That was something I could feel proud of".
She continues to executive produce, is a member of Radio New Zealand's board of governors and the organising committee of the New Zealand TV Awards, and is also a frequent radio and TV commentator on screen and media matters. In 2022 she became president of SPADA, the Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand.
Profile updated on 21 April 2022
'Irene Gardiner: On producing and commissioning television' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Uploaded 28 June 2017. Accessed 21 April 2022
Donna McIntyre, 'My job: Irene Gardiner, Content director' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 3 February 2010