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ĀteaMarch 28, 2024

Celebrating 20 years: How Whakaata Māori changed the game


Twenty years ago today, Māori Television launched after much controversy. Jamie Tahana looks back on its survival and impact across two decades.

Chad Chambers stepped onto the stage, the brim of his cap casting a shadow across his face. His smile beamed as bright as his white freezing works gumboots, matched with trackies and a baggy blue Ngāti Porou rugby jersey. 

He appeared so casual it looked as if he was just popping by. The studio could have been the Four Square on the way home, just picking up milk and a pie, his ute parked out front with the engine still running. 

Yet, here he was on stage in front of hundreds of fans. It was the 2011 grand final of Hōmai Te Pakipaki, the hit Māori Television talent show. “Chur chur whānau,” he said to the screaming fans, before belting out a magical cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’. He would go on to win that year, and his rendition of the classic love song has been watched nearly a million times on YouTube.

For nearly a decade, Hōmai became something of a Friday night institution. Aunties, uncles and cousins from around the motu would queue for the chance to belt out their favourite karaoke numbers from Aotearoa’s rugby clubs, RSAs and garages. People from all walks of life were encouraged to “bring your keyboard and your mates for a jam”. It delivered something few other reality shows could: authenticity. 

Hōmai was just one of many such programmes in the Māori Television stable, as the channel this week marks 20 years since it first launched on March 28, 2004. It brought our language into prime time, it brought our towns, marae and communities onto screens in our authentic way, it challenged us – both Māori and Pākehā – and it entertained us in a unique way. It even introduced phrases that have seeped their way into the national vernacular: “Mean Māori mean.”

It redefined Anzac Day broadcasting, something that had been long-neglected by the mainstream. It brought different perspectives to current affairs. There was Code, the sports show with no sports footage (they couldn’t afford the rights), but made gripping by the presenters and stars it managed to pull. There were other shows about renovating marae, exploring kai, and finding characters up and down the country. It looked like us.  

But that Whakaata Māori managed to celebrate 20 years this week is remarkable. The knives were out for it from the very start. 

The fight for a Māori television service has its origins in the fight for te reo Māori. For decades, Māori programming had been relegated to the backwaters of Sunday morning. Te Karere was only a few minutes long, its schedule often shuffled around. Mainstream news programmes often lacked Māori perspectives (even pronouncing Māori properly was optional), and very few Māori programmes were commissioned for prime time. 

“Let’s be honest, if TVNZ had done its job for Māori in line with the remit they had been given, you wouldn’t have Māori Television today,” Julian Wilcox, the veteran broadcaster who spent a decade at Whakaata Māori, recalled to me recently. “But they didn’t. They kept ghettoising our content and we were left behind.” 

The Māori language petition of 1975 lamented the lack of Māori on the airwaves, and saw a push by the Māori Council and the Wellington-based Te Reo Māori Society for better representation on screen. That continued through the ‘80s and ‘90s as claims were brought to the Waitangi Tribunal, including the broadcasting claim of 1990. 

In the late 1980s, when the government sought to sell broadcasting assets, Māori groups filed legal challenges that went as far as the Privy Council. The language was a taonga, they argued, and the Crown had an obligation to support it through broadcasting. The Privy Council agreed. 

In 1996, there was a pilot of a Māori network in Auckland, Aotearoa Television. But it was given an extremely limited timeframe and next to no money. It felt like a poisoned chalice and many who worked there at the time thought it was set up to fail. It folded 10 months later, prompting in some a sense of dread that it was the one shot blown. 

But that wasn’t to be. Two years later, the Helen Clark government announced it would establish a Māori television service, but it became mired in controversy before the first programme had even gone to air. In 2002, chief executive John Davy was jailed and then deported to Canada after it emerged he’d faked his CV, while the second chief executive, Derek Fox, and another senior manager all resigned within the first week. 

Eventually things started to come together and by then it was 2004, the height of political heat about Māori, with the channel launching the same week the Foreshore and Seabed hīkoi left the far north. Then-National Party leader Don Brash, and MPs Gerry Brownlee and Maurice Williamson, questioned the value of a television channel, saying the money would have been better spent on books in school for Māori to learn to read.

“We always wanted something with Māori Television,” said Wilcox of the storm surrounding those early days. “The thing that kept us going was knowing we had these luminaries in Māoridom, our kaumatua in broadcasting, Huirangi Waikerepuru, there on the day going ‘kia kaha, kia kaha’. So we always thought we had the backing of key people.”

And it found its stride pretty quickly, even if it had few resources. It brought kapa haka to the screens in a way never seen before, and marae aerobics. The soap opera Kōrero Mai taught reo in inventive ways, and the iconic kids show Pūkana had me gripped. It started translating big overseas titles, too. I vividly remember watching Spongebob Squarepants in Māori, “Hōmai te Krabby Patty”. News programmes Te Kaea and Native Affairs cemented themselves as appointment viewing. 

“Here’s the thing. Pretty quickly mainstream started doing a lot more coverage of Māori issues because of Māori Television,” Wilcox, the former host of Native Affairs said. “They had to start upping their game.” 

Native Affairs was at its zenith when I was in high school, looking at journalism as a possibility. Watching its powerhouse teams of Wilcox, Mihingarangi Forbes, Maiki Sherman, Oriini Kaipara, to name a few, rigorously tell our stories and hold both the Crown – and our own – to account was inspiring. It couldn’t be found on any other channel. 

But that made the network’s self-administered upper cuts that much more devastating. When Native Affairs aired a story about improper spending within a subsidiary of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust, it was groundbreaking, rigorous, important journalism. When then-chief executive Paora Maxwell intervened to have a follow-up investigation pulled in 2015, it was earth-shattering, as was the exodus of staff that followed. The phrase “shitstorm” was a common summary of the situation. 

The team behind Te Ao with Moana

Time has passed since then, and Whakaata Māori is under new management, with Te Ao with Moana its current appointment viewing. It’s trying to reinvent itself digitally, as all media are. Because it’s not exempt from the shitstorm the whole media industry is facing, with the added mandate of language and cultural promotion. From 2008 until 2022, Whakaata Māori didn’t have a single funding increase, and it faces further funding uncertainty in the next two years. 

But 20 years after its launch, here it is. To call Whakaata Māori the little station that could feels patronising. The people behind it knew they could, and better than anyone else. They did do that, and still are. 

There was a 20 year reunion episode of Hōmai te Pakipaki this week, and Chad Chambers graced the stage again. There’s also a reunion of Code, before Whakaata Māori gets back to plotting the uncertain future. No doubt it’ll be mean Māori, mean.  

Keep going!