Michael Stedman saw his job commanding company NHNZ as being about creating "the best possible environment" for people to make terrific films. Stedman has made a few himself: he began in the industry as a film editor, and has over 1000 credits as producer and director.
Stedman grew up in Dunedin. He made his stage debut at the age of six as a frog at the city's Globe Theatre, and was stag -managing a production of Romeo and Juliet at 13. Television felt like the next logical step. He called the local station of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, who took him up on his mad idea of becoming an editor.
"It was very much a young person's industry," he says. "I remember being struck by the fact that almost the entire staff were under 25." Consumed by film, Stedman borrowed cameras and leftover film stock to make films in his spare time. More than once he was threatened with dismissal after being found in the building at two in the morning.
He won places on in-house training courses for prospective directors and producers. While most of his classmates wanted to work in drama, Stedman figured he would gain much more directing experience by working in sports. The Dunedin studio produced a wide range of shows, from children's programming to music and Beauty and the Beast. Two of the many shows Stedman worked on as producer won Feltex awards — Fair Go and children's magazine show Spot On — for whom Stedman hired presenters Ian Taylor and Danny Watson.
In 1979 he was appointed executive producer of New Zealand's Natural History Unit. The unit had been set up a few years before by Dunedin station manager Hal Weston, after some of his staff began providing coverage of a rediscovered Fiordland population of the nocturnal kakapo (the largest parrot, and one of the world's rarest birds). Step by step the nature filming grew until they were producing full length documentaries, including a landmark trio of films chronicling the rescue of the black robin.
Many of the early documentaries were screened as part of award-winning series Wild South. Stedman also initiated Wildtrack, winner of the Feltex Award for best children's programme for three years straight. A keen believer in being the "least talented person in the team", he recruited long-time colleague Peter Hayden, and persuaded cameraman Rod Morris to join NHU by sending him an envelope containing a return air ticket to Dunedin.
In 1981 Stedman took up a new opportunity as head of TV training for the Australian Film and Television School. When he grew restless, he spent time as head of features at Australian network ABC, created his own production company, and worked as a media consultant for the United Nations.
TVNZ Director-General Julian Mounter invited Stedman back to TVNZ in 1987, in an executive position. He agreed on condition he was allowed to "pick up" the Natural History Unit, and grow it. Within six months Stedman was asked to become director of programme production at Television New Zealand.
For the next two years he found himself commuting regularly between Auckland and Dunedin, juggling both jobs. In an extended 2010 interview with Onfilm, Stedman argued that TVNZ's board saw the NHU as an expensive, non-core business, but were worried about the public relations "nightmare" of closing it. Stedman was given a year to fix the unit and turn it around.
Though NHU shows were winning awards and viewers with acclaimed shows like Moa's Ark, Stedman felt that trends in wildlife documentaries were changing. Realising "if you don't adapt, you become extinct", Stedman helped arrange the company's first international co-production deals, and sought an alliance with an international broadcaster and distributor, so that the NHU team could stay together.
During his first 18 months back, the Natural History Unit's output increased by 300%. In late 1997 Fox Television Studios purchased an 80% share in the company, which was renamed Natural History New Zealand Ltd. Two years later Fox purchased the remaining share from TVNZ. As part of the Fox International Channels group, NHNZ has grown to become one of the world's largest producers of wildlife programming. In late 2010 the company moved from the former Dunedin Television Studios at Garrison Hall to a new, especially redesigned building. In late 2012 former Fox Networks Group president David Haslingden took what he called "a big personal bet", and purchased NHNZ.
Long before, predicting that the demand for natural history programmes would fall, the company began expanding into science, adventure, medicine, and more specialised types of nature programming, as the voice-of-God style documentary pioneered by David Attenborough began to decline.
In broadening its range of shows, Stedman told Onfilm, "we were one of the first companies in the world to see that shift and do it." After the natural history market contracted significantly, "many of the condescending English companies that had been so amused at our attempt to have a go on the world stage disappeared".
NHNZ has gone on to co-produce television with a host of companies and networks, including Animal Planet (hit series Most Extreme), National Geographic, PBS, Discovery Channel, Japan's NHK, and France 3 & 5. As managing director, Stedman worked with his Dunedin staff plus secondary offices in Washington and Beijing. NHNZ also has controlling stakes in production companies in Singapore and South Africa. NHNZ's offshore growth has partly been about necessity, as the company sees little of its product screened on local channels.
Overseas Stedman appeared on many festival jury panels, and has spoken often at conferences about international co-productions and expanding markets. Back home, he has been outspoken in his view that public service television — and also screen industry training — have been treated as political footballs for far too long.
NHNZ programmes are seen in 200 countries, and have earned roughly 250 international awards. Along the way Stedman was made an ONMZ in the 2004 New Year Honours list, and received an Honorary Doctorate (Laws) from Otago University. In 2009 NHNZ was given the inaugural International Achievement award at the Qantas awards (for a screen business demonstrating "commercial success in the international business arena", and commitment to further expansion).
The same year, Stedman was made 2009 Industry Champion by Onfilm and New Zealand's Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA). In 2012 the Documentary NZ Trust gave NHNZ an award for Outstanding Contribution to the NZ Documentary Industry — partly in recognition of the natural history filmmaking course NHNZ runs at Otago University.
Stedman retired from NHNZ in early 2013.
NHNZ website. Accessed 16 February 2018
Nick Grant, 'The natural history of Michael Stedman'(Interview) - Onfilm, August 2010, page 14 (Volume 27, Number 8)
Nick Grant, 'The natural history of Michael Stedman II' - Onfilm, September 2010, page 14 (Volume 27, Number 9)
Nick Grant, 'The natural history of Michael Stedman III' - Onfilm, October 2010 (Volume 27, Number 10)
Philip Wakefield, 'TV Update: Stedman steadier than the Kiwi' (Interview) - Onfilm, August 2007
'Fox TV sells Dunedin's NHNZ' - The Otago Daily Times, 15 February 2013