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ĀteaMarch 28, 2024

Whakaata Māori and the future of Māori media


While creating a slate of world-class shows, Whakaata Māori also developed a generation of world-class creatives.

Television is an odd word. It mixes the Ancient Greek and Latin languages, and its most literal meaning is “far-off sight”.

In the contemporary and living language of te reo Māori, “whakaata” as a noun includes the meaning “reflection”, and as a verb, “to reflect, display or exhibit”. “Whaakata Māori” then is a reflection of Māori, an image presented back to ourselves.

On the 20th anniversary of our national broadcaster, I’d like reflect on a legacy in television that has survived technological and political upheaval, brought Māori and non-Māori closer together, and built a precious record of our shared histories.

How long is 20 years?

An eternity, especially in the past two decades where just about every media organisation on earth went through an existential crisis. When the Māori Television Service sent out its first analogue signal on March 28, 2004, CD stores existed, phones were connected to your house, newspapers were broadsheets, magazines filled retail shelves, and only 2.5 million kiwi used the internet. TVs were cube-shaped.

Cut to the present day and Whakaata Māori has two digital broadcast television channels, one multilingual and one exclusively in te reo, an on-demand streaming service through the Māori+ app, an online news service through Te Ao Māori News (also an app), and multiple social media channels. While other media outlets struggled and some drowned in the seas of change, Whakaata Māori has been able to stay afloat, survive and lead.

That’s an incredible achievement at a technical and logistical level. Undeniable. Amazing. The sheer amount of change involved at each stage of digital transition has sundered larger but less-agile organisations, many of which were backed by huge amounts of foreign capital. We tend to think of television as the shows and content that appear on-screen, and of Māori television as an indigenous version of that content, but it’s the persistent training and retraining and education and upskilling of staff and clients and stakeholders that holds everything together. This adaptation is also Māori television.

Launch of Māori TV in 2004

How long is 20 years in politics?

Two eternities; possibly more. The security of state funding has been a major advantage throughout the above period of technological change, but brother, the funding ain’t that secure. An inherent risk of public funding is that the rug can be pulled out very quickly – while private sector services are able to decline until they fail, public sector services can be cancelled point blank.

Whakaata Māori is now in its fourth cycle of government (fifth by coalition count), seventh general election cycle, and second generation of voters – an impressive stretch but one that could fold on a whim. Consider just how many government departments and enterprises have been launched, shortly cancelled, revived and flopped in the intervening two decades, regardless of which party or coalition is in power. Consider also how many moonshots have directed funds into private pockets, how many major private sector ventures have folded of their own accord, and how thinly-spread the accountability for either has become.

While it’s currently trendy to be upset at the renaming of government departments, I think we can link the survivability of Whakaata Māori directly to the increased political value of te reo. The growth in exposure to the Māori language over two decades has strengthened its value to New Zealanders in general, increasing the mana of te reo by gathering allies.

Who is Whakaata Māori for?

It’s for everyone. There’s no whakapapa thermometer attached to our television remotes, and no percentage dial attached to the facial recognition chips on our smartphones. Indeed, the foundational promise of Whakaata Māori is to promote and normalise the taonga of language and culture – all are welcome to view and none are kept away.

Māori make up 17% of the national population and represent 33% of all viewers for Whakaata Māori content, figures that clearly demonstrate a strong demographic appeal. The remaining two-thirds of Whakaata Māori viewers are New Zealanders of all stripes – multi-generational New Zealanders, recent immigrants, permanent residents, international visitors, our friends and family and colleagues. I asked my own English-born mother why she spends significant time watching the channel: “Because it’s good,” she stated with the plain authority of anyone named mum, “and because my sons are Māori.”

Whakaata Māori reporting on the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011.

Whakaata Māori is and always was designed to appeal to tangata whenua; and we value it dearly. What we’ve come to understand over 20 years is that many other people also value the image and outlook of Māori, that a Māori worldview isn’t shunned by New Zealanders and that Māori contributions to media have a lasting appeal. This appeal also extends outside Aotearoa,  to a network of indigenous broadcasters, including the Sámi of Norway, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, and the First Nations people of America.

What will the next 20 years look like?

No one can tell, and if they say they can, don’t believe them. The global media landscape is in a state of flux that is so rapid it has quantum properties. What remains certain is the real and lasting effects of Whakaata Māori’s existing work will ripple into the future, affecting our approach to history and storytelling for a long time to come.

The archival value of Māori television cannot be overstated. Twenty years of our history have been collected and committed to record: the words of cherished kaumatua who have now passed, images of the young who have now grown, accounts of national significance and captured memories of everyday life in Aotearoa. From news and current affairs, to Anzac Day commemorations and Sidewalk Karaoke, we have an indelible resource that can be referenced forever, and one that can’t be written over with false narratives. The real-time record of our reo alone is a treasure.

The ripple effects of Whakaata Māori can already be seen in the media of Māori youth, as created by Māori youth. Browsing TikTok reveals rangatahi with tens of thousands of followers, hundreds of thousands in some cases, and millions of views drawn from Aotearoa and across the world. When I hear them speak and watch the way they present their stories and their lives and the whenua they live on, I see 20 years of Whakaata Māori shining back from the screen.

If you shine a light into a mirror, that light will be reflected back to you.

Keep going!