Stephen Stehlin began producing Tagata Pasifika in 1992, and still works on it today. One of Television New Zealand's longest-running shows, Stehlin describes it as a "Pacific voice by Pacific people". The programme covers news, arts and politics involving Pacific people in Aotearoa.
Stehlin is a Samoan matai (chief), signalled by his title Taualeo'o, which was bestowed by the village of Sagone on Samoa's biggest island, Savai'i. Stehlin's grandfather was private secretary to the first Samoan prime minister, Fiame Mata'afa Mulinu'u II. Stehlin's father was part of the first wave of Samoans to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland at age 18; his mother has British, Scandinivian and German heritage.
Stehlin grew up in the Auckland suburb of Manurewa, at a time when it was "very white and working class". He remembers only one other islander and two Māori in his age group at primary school. His parents were strong believers in the value of getting a good education; they told him about the existence of 'the colour bar', and pushed the need to work hard at school. Interested in theatre but unsure what to do next, he majored in French at Auckland University. In 1987 Stehlin got his first television job, despite admitting at the interview that he couldn't type. The job was as a trainee producer's assistant on Māori show Koha, which then had a prime time slot on Sunday nights.
He joined Tagata Pasifika for the first time six months after it debuted, having managed to persuade the show's producer that he was Samoan rather than Māori. Stehlin had just spent 18 months working on the "massive undertaking" of documentary Māori Battalion - March to Victory (1990). He's thankful to have been able to learn from March to Victory director Tainui Stephens. Stephens in turn was thankful that Stehlin could speak French, after the crew were arrested in Tunisia for not having the necessary filming permits on them. Stehlin also helped out on Stephens' Māori musical history series When the Haka Became Boogie (1990).
As Stehlin says in this video interview, his first directing assignment is etched in memory as 'The Edgecumbe Incident'. In the weeks leading up to 1990's Telethon, he was about to land via helicopter to an expectant crowd of local fundraisers. Then he got told that the camera had run out of batteries. Having exhausted all other options, he chose to take still photos instead. Following this incident in Opotiki, the camera horror was repeated in Edgecumbe.
In 1991 Stehlin returned to Tagata Pasifika as a trainee producer/director. After a brief stint directing for children's slot The Bugs Bunny Show he became Tagata Pasifika's longtime producer, and continued in that role till 2014. Campaigns to get more Polynesian content on Kiwi TV screens dated all the way back to the 1970s, and in the show's early years its budget was low. The lack of resources kept Stehlin on his toes. At that point stories could only be shot on a Saturday because "it was the only time the cameras were free". But they were not always free for the whole day — sometimes the prime time news took precedence. The use of consumer Hi8 video cameras helped solve the problem.
Over the years Tagata Pasifika has covered many big stories — from the 1999 assassination of Samoan politician Luagalau Levaula Kamu, to the 2009 Tongan ferry tragedy. Keen to balance the news stories with entertainment value, Stehlin introduced Eaten Alive (a Pacific cooking and game show slot, hosted by fa'afafine Samoan chefs). He is also proud to have encouraged emerging Pasifika talents like Lisa Taouma and Mario Gaoa, through writing workshops and a series of one-off dramas known as Tala Pasifika (1996). Most of them debuted on Tagata Pasifika.
Stehlin has also produced a number of popular TV specials showcasing highlights from Polyfest, Auckland's annual Secondary Schools Māori and Pacific Island Performing Arts Festival. In 2010 he helped produce a TV series for "hilarious" comedy duo The Laughing Samoans, which played in a late night slot on TV2.
In 2014 TVNZ executives announced that Māori and Pacific programmes would no longer be made in-house (apart from Māori news show Te Karere). The hope was that independent production companies would take over the programmes, and employ some of the TVNZ staff who had worked on them.
After 27 years at TVNZ, Stehlin launched company SunPix with fellow Tagata Pasifika veterans Ngaire Fuata and John Utanga , to take over production of Tagata Pasifika. Stehlin is Managing Director while Fuata and Utanga are Company Directors, who now handle daily production of the show. In 2018 SunPix launched website TP+, to help viewers "find Pacific stories quickly and easily". The same year SunPix expanded into post-production, after purchasing Auckland company VTR/Suite 16.
Stehlin has been actively involved with many organisations, including the Pacific Islands Media Association, and as a board member of both the National Pacific Radio Trust and the Auckland University of Technology Council. He was a member of the Film and Literature Board of Review, and was instrumental in the 1998 formation of AFA, the Social Support Group for Gay and Lesbian Pacific People.
In 2008 he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Pacific Island television and the arts. In 2019 he curated and wrote this piece on the history of Pacific programming for NZ On Screen. Stehlin is proud that Tagata Pasifika has played its part in New Zealand's growing recognition that Pacific culture is a key part of the country's identity. "Pacific people, though they are a small part of this community, do matter," he says. "They are a defining feature of New Zealand society."
Profile updated on 21 March 2019
'Stephen Stehlin: Providing a voice for Pasifika people..."(Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 23 September 2013. Accessed 21 March 2019
SunPix website. Accessed 21 March 2019
Carolyn Thomas, 'MEDIA: It's goodbye Whai - but Tagata Pasifika hopes success will go on' Pacific Media Centre website. Loaded 8 June 2008. Accessed 21 March 2019
'Taualeo'o Stephen Stehlin' TVNZ website. Accessed 21 March 2019
Vaimoana Tapaleao, 'Tagata Pasifika: 30 years on and still going strong' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 3 April 2017
Unknown writer, 'Māori and Pacific Programme Production' (Press release) TVNZ website. Loaded 23 October 2014. Accessed 21 March 2019
Dateline Pacific reporter, 'SunPic launches new on-demand service for Tagata Pasifika' (Radio Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 2 July 2018. Accessed 21 March 2019