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The History of Public Media in NZ

NZ television has undergone many changes since it first began last century. Then, as now, it was sometimes amazing and sometimes incredibly dull. It could be patronising and cheesy, revelatory or nation-building; an institution that made us proud to be Kiwis. 

What happened to NZ Television?


Despite the huge range of television and other media everywhere around us in the 21st century, some people also remember back to the early days of the NZBC when there was still a strong public service ethic.

Experiments were initiated in the 1950s, but it was only in 1960 that regular television services commenced in New Zealand.

The NZBS (NZBC from 1962) was established as a state monopoly. Like the BBC, the general principles to inform, educate and entertain were apparent, and funding was through the licence fee. However, almost from the beginning, advertising was permitted too.

Given the absence of commercial competition, that didn’t have much impact on the types of programmes that were screened – there were plenty of documentaries, pointy-headed interview programmes, children’s programmes and NZ-made wildlife docos. There were even programmes about artists and art! And if you didn’t like what NZBS was broadcasting- too bad; that was the only channel!

Before we get too misty-eyed about the old days though, there was also very little diversity, prime-time M?ori programming stopped at Billy T James, and newsreaders affected polished English accents. And the relationship between NZBC and the government was strained at times. During the 60s, reporting the Vietnam war proved to be a point of tension, especially with the NZ government’s decision to send troops to fight alongside the US. Then in the 1970s, Robert Muldoon gained a reputation for bullying reporters and the licence fee was sometimes used as leverage to pressure state broadcasters.

In 1975, the second television channel was launched, subsequently branded South Pacific TV. Although separate from TV One, competition for ratings and advertising was not yet at a level where public service principles would be sacrificed for profit. In 1977, the Broadcasting Council, Radio NZ and the two television channels were reincorporated as BCNZ, with the latter forming TVNZ in 1980.

Following the 1984 election, the ‘Rogernomics’ programme under the fourth Labour government saw the start of the commercial era. A third private television channel was approved, which commenced as TV3 in 1989. In the same year, BCNZ was split up with TVNZ becoming a commercially-motivated state-owned enterprise, and a new Crown Entity, the Broadcasting Commission (NZ On Air), was established to distribute the licence fee on a contestable basis.


By 1990, TV3 was in receivership after less than a year in operation. Foreign ownership laws were relaxed to allow the Canadian conglomerate, CanWest, to acquire the company. This opened the door for future broadcast acquisitions by foreign media corporations, notably the purchase of Sky TV by Murdoch’s INL group. Competition intensified throughout the 1990s, with several new free-to-air channels starting up (with mixed success) and the steady growth of SkyTV’s satellite Pay-TV monopoly.

Even though many local programmes were government funded through NZ On Air, the range of content slowly decreased. Privately-owned TV3 was desperately focused on profits, and so was TVNZ as required by the government, at the expense of quality or providing a public service for audiences.

Cheaply produced genres like reality-TV predominated while news and current affairs became markedly ‘softer’ and more entertainment-focused, in an effort to hold viewers' attention. Documentaries became less frequent as did 'Kidult' youth dramas, science programmes and anything that brought communities together, built nations, or made us proud to be Kiwis.


NZ On Air


Up to 1989, TVNZ was the direct recipient of the licence fee, giving it the autonomy to decide what programmes to commission and when to schedule them. TV One and TV2 complemented each other, rather than chasing the same audience demographics.  The insulation from commercial pressures to optimise ratings and revenue in every slot in the schedule is a fundamen


tal principle behind the BBC, ABC, CBC and most other public broadcasters around the world. However, one of the potential limitations of a publicly-funded state monopoly with no other competition is an institutionally conservative outlook without much incentive to innovate and respond to consumer demand. For many independent content producers, their relationship with TVNZ’s commissioners determined their survival. If TVNZ didn’t like your proposal, there were no other channels you could approach.

The arrival of TV3 and the establishment of NZ On Air was therefore a radical change which many in the independent production sector welcomed. The basic idea was that the best ideas would get funded and if you had a good proposal but were turned down by one broadcaster then another one would be interested. The contestability principle naturally aligned with the new neoliberal preference for free markets, although it is important to note that the continuation of the licence fee (up to 1999) and the public funding of local content was still regarded as necessary.

New Zealand’s small market size and majority English-speaking population meant that many content genres produced locally were far more expensive to produce than imported programmes from the UK, USA or Australia. (For example, a high quality NZ drama might cost $750,000 per hour while a similar drama licenced from overseas might cost just 10% of that.) From a purely commercial perspective, it makes no sense for a broadcaster to make an expensive local programme if a cheaper foreign import will generate the same audience and advertiser revenue. NZ On Air’s role was therefore to off-set the opportunity cost of local content by giving the local producers/broadcasters financial incentives.

To give NZ On Air its due, it has enabled the production of a huge range of local programmes and played a critical role in sustaining the local production sector. Some of NZ On Air’s funding decisions have occasionally been dubious (e.g. The GC was supposed to be a documentary, and NZ’s Got Talent is hardly innovative), but the critical successes outnumber them. Few would query the decision to fund uniquely Kiwi dramas like Outrageous Fortune or critical documentaries such as Inside Child Poverty.

However, the contestable funding model has some important limitations. Although NZ On Air was set up to off-set the commercial pressures of the deregulated and privatised television market, it is a funding agency, not a broadcaster. For obvious reasons, NZ On Air will only fund programmes that have an undertaking to broadcast from a television channel. However, this means that in practice, the commissioners and schedulers of the commercial channels have gatekeeping power over what NZ On Air can actually fund. Put simply, if a good programme idea does not appeal to the broadcasters, then they can either refuse to accept it, or else schedule it well out of prime time where it won’t harm the ratings. This effectively means that NZ On Air’s contestable fund is exposed to precisely the commercial pressures it is intended to off-set.

A further issue here is that just because public service principles obviously include local content provision, supporting local content is only one aspect of public service. NZ On Air was not set up to support a full range of local content genres. For example, news and current affairs were flagship programmes for their channels in the early 1990s and were, until more recently, not considered eligible for funding. As commercial competition intensified, the opportunity costs to broadcasters of scheduling any programme liable to deliver sub-optimum ratings have increased. In turn, NZ On Air has often had to decline proposals for desirable genres such as educational programmes for children, serious, documentaries and Maori-related content because none of the major channels will schedule them.

Indeed, the broadcasters make no secret of the fact that they want NZ On Air to allocate more of its funding to commercially viable genres.  There is therefore a tension between funding only the most popular local content programmes to support the commercial media sector (arguably corporate welfare) and funding a full range of local content genres to serve all New Zealanders as citizens.

NZ On Air expanded the range of content it would fund when the government diverted what had been the TVNZ Charter funding (see below) to the Platinum Fund in 2009. This was earmarked for quality public service genres and, significantly, included current affairs for the first time. However, this still did not remove the gatekeeping power of commercial scheduling, which is why there is now nothing resembling current affairs in the 7pm slot while programmes like The Nation, Q&A, and The Hui have been shuffled out to weekend morning or late at night. It is notable that TV3’s 3D Investigates was cancelled in favour of The Project despite the fact that NZ On Air had offered to fund it. TV3 also rejected a further series of Media 3 even though funding was on offer.

NZ On Air’s recently revised funding model, ( ), was largely a response to digital convergence and expands the range of platforms eligible for funding. However, it also reflects the fact that (like RNZ) NZ On Air’s funding has been frozen since 2008 and that there are an increasing number of demands for funding from content producers on different platforms. The new model seems to offer the potential to move beyond broadcasting as the sole platform for distribution and get round the commercial gatekeepers. For example, the excellent documentary series ‘The Valley’, which investigated the NZ casualties in the Battle of Baghak in Afghanistan, recently appeared on as well as on TV3.

However, the new model has folded the Platinum Fund into the central fund, and the more expensive productions still carry the expectation of high audience appeal including television broadcast. Rather worryingly, NZ On Air recently decided to discontinue the funding for Back Benches (on Prime) and Media Take (on Maori TV). These were the last remaining programmes from the TVNZ7 era (see below) and it is telling that in the case of Media Take, NZ On Air apparently had concerns over limited audience reach. Although NZ On Air is under significant pressure to optimise the public value delivered by every dollar it spends, such decisions underline the limits of the contestable funding model and the need for a properly funded public service channel in the centre of our media ecology.

The TVNZ Charter


By the late 1990s, TVNZ was being set up for privatisation by National. However, the election of the first of three Labour-led governments in 1999 saw a change in broadcasting policy direction. Labour recognised that the deregulation, privatisation and commercialisation of the 1990s had led to an erosion of public service functions. Its solution was to reintroduce a public service charter for TVNZ to try and ensure that our state-owned television channels reflected the needs of the public as citizens, not just consumers.

The Charter was formally implemented in 2003, changing its status from a purely commercial state-owned enterprise to a crown company with a dual remit- to maintain commercial performance while delivering the public charter. The contradiction should have been apparent from the start, but Labour still believed that it could harness the commercial broadcasting model to deliver public service outcomes with a minimum of public funding. There are other public broadcasters (such as RTE in Ireland) which do generate revenue from advertising as well as receiving public funding, and of course, the early NZBC model operated this way.  But none of the other mixed-funding public broadcasters is expected to pay commercial dividends, and none of them receive the low level of public funding that TVNZ did.

Conflicting agendas within Cabinet over the budget saw TVNZ allocated roughly $15m per year from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Importantly this was to enable TVNZ to deliver the charter and provide programmes that extended beyond the range of content funded by NZ On Air.  However, $15m was less than 5% of its operating budget at the time, and even with extra funding for local content from NZ On Air, TVNZ remained 90% dependent on commercial revenue. So it was never going to deliver the kind of public service the BBC or the ABC do in the UK or Australia. To make matters worse, the demand for dividend payments saw more money going back to the Treasury than TVNZ received in charter funding. In fact, between 2003 and 2008, TVNZ received approximately $95m in funds for the charter but paid $142m in dividends. Quite literally, the government was giving TVNZ money with one hand only to take it back with the other!

TVNZ did try and bring in some new programmes and changed some of its formats in response to the Charter. But there was no clarity about the expectations on TVNZ. If it made commercial decisions then it was criticised for neglecting the charter, and if it prioritised charter content but dropped audience share, it was criticised for neglecting its commercial responsibilities. TVNZ’s use of the Charter funds also became blurred with its use of NZ On Air’s local content funding which further confused matters. After using Charter money to bid for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (much of which was never broadcast), Labour decided to give NZ On Air oversight of how TVNZ spent the charter funding.

However, in November 2008, the first of three National-led governments returned to office. Dismissing the Charter as a failure, National re-allocated the Charter funding to NZ On Air to create the Platinum Fund, and the legislation formally repealing the Charter was passed in 2011. Although TVNZ remains a crown company and could in theory be given non-commercial directives by the government, it is now thoroughly commercial in focus. However, with TVNZ facing a gradual decline in revenues as digital convergence fragments the audience and advertising dollars, the rationale for government retaining TVNZ as an asset is debatable. Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2017 election, NZ First had proposed turning TV One non-commercial. Although such a bold commitment to public service is appealing, it would probably be an expensive undertaking ($150m+). With Labour, NZ First and the Greens forming a new coalition government, the future direction of policy towards TVNZ remains unclear.

TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7

TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 began as part of TVNZ’s initiative to help drive digital switch-over (which was completed in 2013).  Not only were they the first digital free-to-air channels in NZ, TVNZ 6 and 7 were also our first commercial-free television channels. As such they were not constrained by the commercial pressures which limited TV One and TV2 and embodied public service values far better than the charter arrangements.

Introduced under Labour in 2007 and 2008 respectively, TVNZ 6 and 7 were also subject to internal cabinet conflicts, with the minister of finance and Treasury being highly reluctant to fund the new initiative. Eventually they were funded from 2007 to 2012 from a $79m appropriation (effectively a drip-fed repayment of a special $70m dividend TVNZ had paid the government as part of a restructuring exercise). TVNZ was instructed to explore ways of making the channels self-funding after this initial funding period.

TVNZ 6 screened children’s programme and other family-oriented content during the day with more arts, comedy and drama content in the evening. Importantly, the daytime ‘Kidzone’ schedule provided a commercial-free environment for younger children, with a high proportion of NZ content (see ). TVNZ 7, meanwhile, specialised in news, current affairs and documentary programmes. This included a full hour of news and analysis every evening with innovative programmes like Back Benches, Media 7 and The Court Report.

Together TVNZ 6 & 7 came the closest to fulfilling our public service television needs. By day parents could leave their kids to watch for a while knowing their kids wouldn’t come away with American accents and screaming for a happy combo meal. By night adults could watch informative, brain stimulating programmes that treated them with respect.

The return of National to government in 2008 came as the ramifications of the global financial crisis were beginning to affect New Zealand, and it was looking to cut costs across many portfolios. As mentioned, the funding for RNZ and NZ On Air was frozen, while the TVNZ Charter money was re-allocated to NZ On Air.  National insisted that in the digital multi-media environment, funding public broadcasting institutions was no longer important and that it was more appropriate to fund content through contestable funds on a platform-neutral basis.

Although TVNZ had attempted to demonstrate that 6 and 7 were delivering high public value through programming partnerships with other public sector and non-governmental bodies (such as Auckland Zoo and Plunket), they were not yet in a position to fund themselves. With the gradual up-take of digital set-top-box receivers, audience ratings were naturalSave TVNZ 7 badge.jpgly much lower than the mainstream channels, although the monthly audience reach suggested over a third of the population watched them.

The National government was unsympathetic and regarded the commercial-free channels as a ‘nice to have’, the continued funding of which could not be fiscally justified. For a time, the government did consider retaining one of the channels after the original funding allocation expired.  In response, TVNZ decided to close 6 (to be replaced by the short-lived Channel U), with some of 6’s content being folded into TVNZ 7. 

The Save TVNZ 7 campaign (from which BPM evolved) gathered 36,000 signatures and held two protest marches to try and save the channel (see ). Despite needing only an estimated $17m per year to be maintained, National eventually decided that it would not provide further funding, and TVNZ 7 ceased operation in 2012.  (The final broadcast is here: ).

It is worth noting that the government’s insistence that the content from TVNZ 7 could still be made available through NZ On Air funding was completely mistaken. Although Kidzone 24 was taken up by Sky as a stand-alone channel (albeit one behind a paywall) this ended in 2016. The only programmes to be retained on free-to-air channels through NZ On Air funding were Back Benches (which ran on Prime) and Media 7 (reincarnated initially as Media 3 on TV3 and subsequently as Media Take on Maori TV). In 2017, both Back Benches and Media Take had their funding discontinued by NZ On Air. Consequently, NONE of the original content that TVNZ 6 and 7 made available is currently available on free-to-air television. Again, this underlines the importance of having an adequately-funded non-commercial public channel.

M?ori Television

Maori TV.png

The Maori Television Service has a long and complex history involving a long-running legal wrangle between the Waitangi Tribunal and the government ending in a Privy Council ruling which confirmed that the government had a legal obligation to protect Te Reo M?ori as a taonga through the provision of broadcast services.

MTS was established under Labour in 2004. Funded primarily by direct funds from Te Puni Kokiri and Te M?ngai P?ho and supplemented by contestable funding (and content) from both Te M?ngai P?ho and NZ On Air (with a modest level of additional advertising revenue), MTS is largely insulated from the kind of commercial pressures that compromised TVNZ’s Charter.

Although the majority of its content on the main channel and the Te Reo channel is in Maori, there is also a wide range of international movies and documentaries which has broadened its appeal and led to the perception that MTS is really our national public service television broadcaster.

In some ways this is justified, but M?ori TV’s main function is more specialised than the TVNZ Charter or TVNZ 7. Particularly after the 2013 Amendment Act, which removed the obligation to maintain broad audience appeal, the primary function of MTS is to support the revitalisation of Te Reo M?ori. That’s a vital public service in itself, but it means MTS cannot easily fulfil the public service needs of other communities without compromising its core functions. Since the introduction of the Te Matawai governance structure (replacing the Maori Electoral College and making MTS more directly accountable to an Iwi-appointed board) the role of MTS seems likely to be focused more on playing its part in the Te Reo M?ori policy framework.

MTS is a vital part of the NZ public media system, but the wider needs of both mainstream NZ audiences and other minority audiences (e.g. Pasifika) need their own provisions.

The Lost Generation

There’s a generation of Kiwis who have grown up not knowing what public service television is. We only find out what we’ve been missing when we do our OE in the UK or Australia (or Canada, US, France, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia or one of the many countries with public service TV channels).

TV Genres Extinct in NZ

  • arts programmes
  • science programmes
  • programmes for people over 50
  • regional news and current affairs
  • natural history
  • kidult drama
  • educational television

Extinction Watchlist 

  • investigative journalism
  • documentaries
  • children’s television
  • political debates
  • quiz shows
  • chat shows

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