Howard Morrison, Telethons and Lionel Skeggins: a brief history of NZ TV

For nearly 60 years our image of who we are has been reflected back at us from our TV screens. Tara Ward explores the evolution of New Zealand television. 

Some people reckon the internal combustion engine is the world’s greatest invention, but to them I say “have you ever tried to watch an amateur baker ice a dinosaur-slide cake through the head of a moving piston?” It’s impossible, FYI, and that’s why the television is the best invention we’ll ever know.  

Since it began broadcasting in New Zealand in 1960, television has connected us to the world. It informs us, it educates and entertains us, and most importantly, it’s there for us at midnight when we’ve had one too many cardboard chardonnays and accidentally dial an 0800 number to buy three extendable ladders and a vacuum cleaner powerful enough to lift a car off the ground.

But our viewing habits have evolved since the ‘60s, and these days we expect to watch TV anywhere, anytime. This is why Freeview have launched the New Freeview Recorder, the latest move in their commitment to providing all New Zealanders with the choice and freedom of controlling their own viewing experiences.

The New Freeview Recorder is powered by Android TV, which means all of Freeview’s features (subscription free Recording, On Demand and Live TV) are combined with access to extra apps and content on Google Play. It’s also the first recorder in New Zealand to work with both UHF aerials and satellite dishes, which means it can be used wherever there’s Freeview coverage.

If the future is now, how exactly did we get here? Let’s take a historical trip back in time to relive some of the best moments in New Zealand television history.  

1960s

New Zealand’s first official television broadcast kicked off at 7.30pm on 1 June, 1960. There was only one channel, it screened in black and white, and was transmitted solely in Auckland. Lucky Auckland, because according to NZHistory, NZBS’s initial three-hour broadcast included “an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood, a live interview with a visiting British ballerina and a performance by the Howard Morrison Quartet.”

The 60s were all about heartland shows like Country Calendar and It’s in the Bag. Advertising began to appear on certain days of the week, and early efforts to influence the nation included this contentious Jockey underwear ad. Blokes in their undies on the telly, as we lived and breathed!


1970s

Our TV world came alive when colour broadcasting was introduced to coincide with the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. TVs were still expensive to buy, with NZHistory estimating that “in 1975 a 26-inch set would set you back around $840 (more than $8000 in 2018) and its annual licence fee of $35 ($340) was almost double that for a black and white set”.

TV2 became the second state-owned channel in 1975, and Pukemanu was our first home-grown continuing drama series. Other gems included Close to Home, Top Town, Hudson & Halls and the surprisingly tense A Dog’s Show, which began in 1977 and ran for an astonishing 15 years. That’s a lot of dogs chasing a lot of sheep, great work New Zealand.



1980s

Welcome to the golden age of Telethon, a bi-annual 24-hour television extravaganza of TV stars, community fundraising, and hyped-up Kiwis doing a 3am conga line while singing “thank you very much for your kind donation”. It was a big deal for TV to transmit overnight, and Telethon peaked in 1985 when we raised a whopping $6 million raised for charity.



With the deregulation of New Zealand television in 1989, the market opened to competition. TV3 was the first privately owned channel, and their early programming featured an hour-long news bulletin and national treasure Suzy Cato on the Early Bird Show. Over on TVNZ, Tagata Pacifika began in 1987, Holmes held the prime 6:30pm slot on One, and Gloss was the gloriously yuppie drama that epitomised the excesses of the late ‘80s.   

1990s

There was more choice and competition in the 90s, as Sky TV launched New Zealand’s first pay TV service in 1990. Prime TV began broadcasting in 1998, making it the second privately owned channel in New Zealand.

The reality TV phenomenon hit our screens with the truly blissful Popstars, David Tua made Celebrity Wheel of Fortune O for awesome, while the birth of Shortland Street in 1992 changed the 7pm timeslot forever. Breakfast TV became a thing, and never forget Thingee’s eye popping out, a moment that simultaneously delighted and disturbed a generation of young New Zealanders.

In sadder news, Goodnight Kiwi took his final ride to the top of the aerial when Channel 2 moved to 24 hour broadcasting in 1994, until TVNZ U reintroduced the wee fella in 2011.  

2000s

We were watching more of ourselves on the telly in the noughties, as television began to better reflect New Zealand’s diversity.  Māori TV launched in 2004, aiming to revitalise Māori language and culture through its programming. A second Māori TV channel, Te Reo, launched in 2008 to broadcast completely in Māori language.

In 2007 Freeview launched their satellite service, a collaboration between free-to-air broadcasters TVNZ, MediaWorks, Māori Television and Radio New Zealand. It then launched its UHF platform in 2008 delivering free-to-air broadcasts in HD and providing Kiwis with access to free-to-air television, whether by UHF or satellite, ahead of the switch to digital TV in 2012.    

The new millennium blessed us with a cornucopia of popular TV memories, from Good Morning’s Astar and her dying swan to some undecided voters using a worm to influence the 2002 general election. Cheryl West tried to go straight in the critically acclaimed Outrageous Fortune, award-winning animated comedy series Bro’town debuted in 2004, and Ben Lummis won the inaugural series of New Zealand Idol. 2006 saw Shortland Street’s first civil union wedding, while Police 10/7 reminded us to always blow on the pie. Safer communities together, New Zealand.



2010s

The 2010s shook our TV world like never before, and not just because “please tell me that is not your penis” entered our vocabulary. The switch to digital television, and the introduction of on-demand platforms like Freeview On Demand and subscription services like Lightbox and Netflix means we now have unprecedented choice for what, when and how we watch television.  

Live to air TV could still unite us as a nation, like Simon Barnett dislocating his knee live on Dancing with the Stars or Lionel Skeggins returning on Shortland Street’s 25th anniversary episode. In 2015 we said goodbye to Good Morning, the show that launched a thousand Bambillo pillows and opened with lines like “hope you caught some sun in the weekend, it was so hot in Petone I got down to my jocks”. Also headed into the TV sunset was youth channel TVNZ U.

It’s one click on your remote or other device away – it’s Freeview.

In 2018, nearly sixty years after television’s first broadcast in New Zealand, Freeview launched their new On Demand platform, a single catalogue of on-demand content from a variety of free-to-air broadcasters. Their New Freeview Recorder gives us even more choice of how we watch our favourite shows, whether broadcast live, streamed or recorded. It’s a world away from that first three hour transmission back in June 1960, but what a journey it was to get here.

This content was created in paid partnership with Freeview. Learn more about our partnerships here


This content was brought to you by FreeviewFreeview On Demand is supported on new Smart TVs, connected boxes and recorders. Call 0800 FREEVIEW or visit freeviewnz.tv for more information.


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