It drew huge audiences and helped solve hundreds of cases – yet it could never keep up with New Zealand’s changing views of crime, justice and race.
It’s like the 12 Days of Christmas, except incredibly grim. “A group of murderous thugs; two young creeps; a halfwit with a gun, a false beard and a turban; a mindless lowlife; two vicious morons; two armed and violent mongrels; three stooges; three desperate and wild-eyed gutless goons; three vicious apes; two fat women and a man with a gun; this little thug; this little germ; lunatic scumbag with a steak knife”.
That’s the transcript of a supercut of former detective and longtime Police Ten 7 host Graham Bell’s most extravagant descriptors, edited into 28 lurid seconds. The clip is not an aberration – a similar version opened the first episode of a trio of hour-long specials on Monday night, a clear acknowledgement that the makers understand how important Bell’s persona was to the show’s appeal. The sensationalist tabloid treatment of crime stories was enthralling, but Bell’s anachronistic barking is also why the show became completely untenable. That’s why, despite its comparatively strong ratings, its final episode airs tonight, after an unheralded delay, smashed out over consecutive nights – a television powerhouse, no longer fit for television.
It’s an abrupt end for a show which was for most of its two decade run one of the most popular and reliable ratings-winners for TVNZ 2. Despite recent efforts at reform, it has been unable to keep up with changes to what is now a vastly different society from the one it debuted into in 2002. Depending on how you slice them, crime rates rose for the first few years of the show, but have experienced steady decline across both total charges and serious offences for more than a decade now. At the same time, macro contributors to crime such as poverty and housing insecurity have become far better understood.
In this way Police Ten 7 is a cipher for our evolving politics and views of criminality. The dehumanising qualities of Bell’s descriptors were until recently the dominant way criminality was understood, but have now been largely jettisoned in favour of a more nuanced view of the forces which drive people to commit crime.
Boozed up bogans
When Police Ten 7 began, its approach was somewhat different to the harder-edged show it became. The first episode was narrated by Martin Crump, and noticeably more laidback – much more interested in cataloguing New Zealand’s boozed, blazed weekends than in tracking down the perpetrators of violent crime. The first incident investigated was a smashed up bus shelter, and the alleged vandal was tracked to a local park. “The suspect was sleeping under a tree, and he’s finding it very hard to wake up,” Crump narrates. A police dog attempts to rouse him, finally prompting a response from the teenager: “Make him stop, I’m so stoned”.
Throughout its run, alcohol has been the dominant fuel of whatever behaviour has attracted a police presence. Which was often urinating in the wrong place. “Man, I’m allowed to piss on the fence, man,” says one slurring neighbour. Another is asked to clean up a puddle he’s left on a Hamilton storefront. “Use your head, mate”, the cop says, before hastily clarifying, “not literally”.
This kind of interaction points to part of what made the show so wildly successful in its early years. The zenith being the “always blow on the pie” exchange, one which likely provided incalculable value to the NZ Police in terms of suggesting an approach of good-humoured pragmatism over the kind of excessive force palpable in overseas shows like Cops. While the pie scene is better known, the Hamilton “gobbie” incident, featuring a fan of the show grinding on a smiling cop, saying “police of New Zealand are comfortable with the homosexual population” is at least as entertaining and brand burnishing.
These moments happened regularly enough that they were a large part of the show’s pitch to viewers. It’s the same reason Neighbours at War was such a phenomenon for so many years – each part of a wider subgenre, from Motorway Patrol to Renters to Piha Rescue. There’s something undeniably compelling about watching everyday New Zealanders alternately letting loose or under stress. The vernacular, the unpredictability, that voyeuristic sense of peeking into a life which is not your own. Yet that also speaks to the queasy morality underpinning Police Ten 7. It made light entertainment of what was often one of the worst moments of someone’s life.
That’s not the only moral problem. Surprisingly frequently the on-screen talent has signed a release, allowing their faces to be featured for extended periods – even high school students and the heavily intoxicated. It’s almost unimaginable that a rational person would do this, given the huge national audience it attracted for most of its run, and the consequential impact on family relationships and employment prospects. It received multiple BSA complaints from those featured, and while only once upheld, they point to the tense relationship between an entertainment and advertising product and the highly vulnerable people featured on the show.
A darker turn
Over the 2000s, the crimes featured on Police Ten 7 became harder and more violent, the emphasis on solving them grew and Bell’s influence and framing became more brazenly the product. Later seasons saw rapes and homicides prominently featured, though Police could point to arrests made after public tips as justification for the turn toward much more serious crime. Over the enormous 750 episode run, close to 1,000 arrests were made after audience calls, justifying deputy police commissioner Jevon McSkimming’s recent description of it as “a vital investigative tool”.
Still, as its audience grew, so too did the complexity of its function. Because while it was valuable for law enforcement, it was also a hugely significant part of TVNZ’s hit Thursday night schedule, driving major ad revenue from such agony. That tension was increased at the production company side, when its makers Screentime were bought by French giant Banijay, in part because Police Ten 7 had become an unexpected hit in Australia.
Airing in primetime on Channel 9, Australian audiences grew as large as a million viewers an episode. It attracted controversy there not for the language, but because at the time it could be counted toward local content quotas. Even now, many previous seasons of the show are free to stream globally on Tubi – despite TVNZ having a policy of only keeping episodes on streaming for two weeks so as to avoid prejudicing cases which might be before the courts.
With Bell’s charged narrative at the show’s heart, it became increasingly scrutinised for the visions of crime and policing it presented to New Zealand. Gabrielle Podvoiskis’ MA thesis in criminology from 2012 faulted it for creating “a specific, pro-police vision of policing and crime in New Zealand”. This was the peak of its popularity, and when it really cemented itself in the national consciousness – but created a harsh reputation it would struggle to outrun.
After the Bell
In 2014, according to a later review, producers used the opportunity of Bell’s retirement to undertake a cultural reset of the show. Tellingly, they appointed Rob Lemoto, a South Auckland detective of Tongan descent, as the new face of Police Ten 7. Lemoto used notably calmer language than Bell, and there was a push to show a more diverse range of police officers, by comparison to the Pākehā men mostly enforcing the law in earlier seasons.
This was far from the first time the show had been made aware of the racial tensions it raised. In 2007, then-TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis was forced to apologise after, unbelievably, citing Police Ten 7 alongside the likes of Shortland Street as an example of “shows that have a Māori presence”. While Ellis survived that incident, it foreshadowed controversies around race and the show which would ultimately prove its undoing.
In June of 2020, The Spinoff’s Emily Writes wrote about its depiction of Māori, questioning its continuing presence at a time when Cops was abruptly cancelled in the US, in the aftermath of the protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd. A year later then-Auckland Councillor Efeso Collins triggered a much larger controversy when he tweeted about its over-representation of “young brown people… this stuff feeds on racial stereotypes, and it’s time [TVNZ] acted as responsible broadcaster and cut it.” His concern was echoed by academic Ella Henry, who called the show “hate speech” that “allowed the dominant culture to feel safe and secure that we are being handled by the Police”.
In the aftermath, TVNZ commissioned a review from AUT law professor Khylee Quince and media consultant Karen Bieleski. While it praised some aspects of the management of the show, it also found fault. “In our meetings with the TVNZ team, there were numerous mentions of “cultural integrity” policies and processes across their work as broadcasters. These policies would seem to be a work in progress… there is no concrete written evidence of what these entail.” It also noted that parts “make light entertainment out of people who are intoxicated, unruly, defiant and distressed.”
While the review was ultimately broadly supportive of the show, it was also asked by TVNZ to address the question of “whether the production of the programme or its promotion is consistent with contemporary values in NZ society in 2021”. While it found that the contemporary iteration was thoughtfully constructed, it noted that it was impacted by the lack of “confidence that some communities have in the police, [which] influence their attitude to the show, without pinpointing any particular practices or instances of discrimination in the programme itself.”
Despite Bieleski and Quince’s report falling far short of condemnatory, it was the beginning of the end for Police Ten 7. It changed its name to Ten 7 Aotearoa, but TVNZ announced the 2022 season would ultimately be its last. While its ratings have mirrored the broad decline of linear television, they were still comparatively strong, particularly for TVNZ2. Instead it is societal changes which have rendered the show more trouble than it’s worth to the network, despite production’s very genuine efforts to evolve the show. It has a lineage stretching back to Police 5 in the 70s, through Crimewatch in the 90s, but as of today there is no longer any regularly scheduled programming documenting the work of police in New Zealand.
“The whingers have won,” complained Heather DuPlessis-Allan when its cancellation was announced, while a Google review showed parts of the show’s audience preferred the Bell era, with all the baggage that went along with it. “Toxic identity politics has ruined it. I’ve watched 3 episodes of the new series and none of the drama is good. No Maori or islanders have featured at all.”
The show’s many critics will view that as precisely the desired outcome. For them, Police Ten 7 could never be reformed enough to outrun its core premise – of making entertainment out of the parade of human misery that is crime. Ultimately it was this unshakable foundation which meant that one of the most popular shows in the history of New Zealand television could no longer justify a place on our screens.