A tiny fragment of the stars NZ on Air has made and paid (Image: Tina Tiller)

Assessing NZ on Air, 30 years after the radical public broadcasting experiment began

Created by future ACT Party leader Richard Prebble after an epic reform bender in the 80s, NZ on Air has just marked its third decade. Duncan Greive relates its history and asks: is the funder still fit for purpose?

It’s a time-honoured tradition for NZ on Air to host parties the night before its board meetings. There’s a fiscal argument for this, in that it gets two birds killed by one set of flights to Auckland. But the real reason is an open secret within the entertainment industry.

The principal business of those board meetings is to hear the recommendations of NZ on Air’s staff about what it should fund, and for the board to ultimately decide to either sign off or resist those recommendations. Decisions which have huge implications for networks, platforms, production houses, writers, directors and more besides. They effectively pass judgement on whether shows live, die, or are never born at all, and thus whether the people invited to NZ on Air events have a solid year’s worth of work ahead of them, or are making redundancies.

Which is to say that the night before board meetings is the last time a group like that can be assembled before they get news that will set their mood for a long while. And given that all those who will decide their fate are in the room together, the last time they can be relied upon to play nice.

NZ on Air’s 30th birthday was celebrated on Tuesday, by an industry crowd of 120 at Government House. Nine years earlier it had a far bigger and more raucous 21st at the Powerstation in Auckland, the $50,000 cost of which made headlines, and no doubt led to this more modest gathering. Governor-general Dame Patsy Reddy, chair Ruth Harley and broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi all spoke, before a motley band – Op Shop’s Jason Kerrison, Zed’s Nathan King, Fur Patrol’s Julia Deans, Che Fu and Laughton Kora – played some waiata. Faafoi joined them on rhythm guitar for the closer, a cover of Op Shop’s ‘One Day’. It was half cute, half cloying, which is probably about where events like this are meant to be pitched.

NZ on Air is now approaching middle age and is about as uncontroversial as it has ever been. Both minister Faafoi and opposition spokesperson Melissa Lee expressed uncomplicated support for the agency when I spoke to them recently. Yet as it enters its fourth decade it’s worth casting an eye back across its history, looking back to its founding and surveying what it has achieved. Because, while it seems normal to us, it’s important to remember that NZ on Air is an absolute mutant in international terms, and the mere proposing of such an arrangement in most western democracies would lead to street protests.

A history of public sector annual report design, 1989-2018 (image: Tina Tiller)

It came towards the tail end of the fourth Labour government’s epic reform bender. Richard Prebble had been minister of broadcasting for less than a year and was profoundly disengaged with the sector. A recently completed Royal Commission report had recommended no major structural changes beyond a substantial increase in funding. He took it with him to a tropical island, read it, and decided to disregard it entirely. When he came back he set in motion a breathtaking series of events which forever changed television in this country, and created our curious, utterly unique system of funding media. 

Almost all major western democracies have large state-owned and funded television and radio networks, which have evolved into online versions. They create content across multiple mediums and are nearly all free of any advertising. They might make programming in or out of house – that is, using their private production sectors – but the decisions which drive the commissioning of programming are made solely within the likes of the ABC in Australia, the BBC in the UK or the CBC in Canada. 

So it was in New Zealand in 1989. TVNZ was run on a non-commercial basis with significant state funding, and made most of its programming in-house, according to those values it considered to be important. The private broadcasting industry in New Zealand barely existed. There were a handful of radio stations and two yet-to-launch TV networks. 

Prebble burned it all down. TVNZ’s two channels were both made commercial, and expected to return a profit to the government. And instead of simply being allocated funding in the budget, a new agency was set up to distribute money to private production houses, which would be given funding to create shows only after networks agreed to broadcast them. Prebble proudly described his reforms as “the most far-reaching restructuring and deregulation of broadcasting, not only in this country but anywhere in the world”.

It was an atom bomb to the sector, one which forever altered New Zealand’s pop cultural landscape. It went from essentially a centrally controlled, BBC-style system which considered that its commissioners knew best what the public needed, to a chaotic, competitive sector which considered popularity a far more significant metric than is common at other public broadcasters. 

This is a list of some shows NZ on Air has funded in whole or in part, necessarily incomplete (the full list would cover 26,000 hours of television): Shortland St, Outrageous Fortune, Q+A, Melody Rules, New Zealand’s Got Talent, Bro Town, The Hui, Jono and Ben, Country Calendar, The GC, Grand Designs, The Almighty Johnsons, Young Entertainers, What Now, Being Eve, Attitude, Zealandia, The Spinoff TV… As with anything at volume, it has commissioned some classics, some punchlines, some you probably hate, some you definitely adore.

Given the economic realities of creating television, had the previous system persisted, many of these shows would never have been dreamed up, let alone made. Three in particular would have evolved in a vastly different direction, and our nascent online screen sector would barely exist at all. 

To many, particularly those old enough to remember the good old days of a non-commercial TVNZ, this would have been no bad thing. Some of their number have waged a pitched battle to repeal the reforms. In 2006 a group of prominent New Zealanders including prominent authors and multiple knights and dames signed an open letter urging the end of the experiment. “Everyone who expects public television to make a better contribution to national life (Remember Close to Home? McPhail and Gadsby? Gallery? and scores of other New Zealand programmes) will join us in urging that you reinstate a public television system comparable with those which are still the pride of citizens in Australia, Britain and Canada,” they wrote.

The agitation morphed into the campaign for better public media, which persists to this day. And while the National government of Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley largely left Prebble’s reforms alone, NZ on Air was a live enough issue during the Clark government to see a charter instituted, and some commercial-free TVNZ sub-channels launched. Yet those drums never beat loud enough to effect real change.

This is largely because of its awkward political position: made by a Labour government but philosophically aligned with National’s private-sector-first philosophy. It works well enough for those working in the sector that they’re unlikely to lobby hard for destabilising change and, having survived its first decade or two, most of those watching barely remember it being any different.

As with most institutions, it scope gradually evolved. It initially funded Māori programming – just half a million dollars a year at first – though after 10 years it was carved off into its own agency under the same broad approach, in Te Mangai Pāho.

After a slow start, NZ on Air began to seriously expand its music output, funding at first radio and music videos and, in time, albums and singles. Its work in the area has always been somewhat contentious, in that music is not strictly analogous to television in industry or consumption. An artist cannot pitch a demo to a radio programmer, who will then agree to A-rotate a finished version for a period of time. So it has long been somewhat speculative, relying on a mixture of taste-makers in radio and media and those actively invested across major and independent labels to decide who should be backed. Traditionally it funded videos as a promotional asset to be exploited, and less often music itself – the most persistent and biting critique of its strategy, at least from artists who watched music video directors grow into careers while they ate ramen noodles. 

At no point in its history has every part of the music industry been happy with this arrangement, yet it’s undeniable that the visibility and plurality of local artists has hugely increased over the past 30 years. The great flowering of successful and visible New Zealand artists (this being popular culture) of the 2000s, from Shihad to Scribe to Shapeshifter, was directly correlated with this increase in spending. Still, the complexity of music and radio as we move into the streaming era ensures it remains perhaps NZ on Air’s most intellectually complex task.

The sectors it oversees are notoriously mouthy and visible, which has ensured a steady diet of controversy and scandal over the years. Beyond the fundamental arguments from those wanting reform have come critiques of specific properties it has funded. There was controversy over Three’s screening of a documentary on child poverty days before the 2011 election, which was seen as favouring Labour (not that it helped their result). Annabel Fay, daughter of one of New Zealand’s richest men, received north of $50,000 to make an album which struggled to find an audience. Shows like Eating Media Lunch and The GC attracted different varieties of content-based outrage. A video game teaching users how to be a music manager was derided. Our own The Spinoff TV generated fury from a particular radio host

The latter two were both examples of its attempt to navigate an increasingly fragmented post-internet media landscape. Yet for all the disruption in media, in many ways the last decade has been NZ on Air’s most stable. John Key’s government, as with so many things it oversaw, largely let it drift. The slow to move into digital has started to hasten, and it seems enlivened by the breaking of the commissioning stranglehold that developed when TVNZ and MediaWorks could claim the lion’s share of the money as of right. To put it another way, NZ on Air has grown more comfortable disappointing powerful people.

And it will have disappointed some more this week. As I typed this its recently refreshed board met at the Heritage hotel in downtown Auckland, to thrill some of this sector and have others plunged into despair. 

Yet on its 30th birthday the round-to-round dynamic is less interesting than its future. It is overseen by a government that should in theory be a huge ally. Labour campaigned on a huge increase in spending, and the pioneering of a new commercial-free TV channel under RNZ’s control. NZ First went further, pushing for making TVNZ 1 commercial free.

Neither has happened.

In fact, almost nothing has. A small pilot scheme jointly administered by RNZ and NZ on Air was created last year and shut down this year, resulting in a functional decrease in the amount of funds distributed by NZ on Air for the first time in years. Close by, the fates of TVNZ and RNZ remain very much in play, with one executive on Tuesday night referring nervously to the possibility of a merger. While they didn’t think it likely, given the lack of clarity from government, nothing can be ruled in or out. 

The rise of Netflix to become New Zealand’s second-most popular channel complicates the picture, and raises the possibility of another merger: that of the Film Commission and NZ on Air. If everything is content and only the screen size changes, then it’s entirely plausible. Or at least, the kind of speculation this strategic vacuum encourages.

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The haze over the sector is largely the result of Claire Curran’s blundering spell as minister, which has led directly to the abundance of caution displayed by her successor in Faafoi. The government is also fortunate in that arts practitioners lean markedly left – Helen Clark was adored at the music awards while John Key attacks were a reliable applause line from the same stage years later. This has brought the government a grace period and muted most criticism – but that’s not a situation that can hold forever. It feels near-inevitable that something will give, either reform or a funding increase. 

Which is to say that NZ on Air is both as stable as it has ever been, and at a crossroads. In a decade’s time it seems unlikely that many of the media it has historically funded will exist in the same form. The great splintering of audiences will continue to make its job far harder and more costly – serving many audiences across everything from television to Instagram to podcasts – but the bonds public media creates only become more important as a result.

Its mission is to create authentically New Zealand public media. The words have changed over the years, but the intent has not. Yet how this mission is achieved must surely radically evolve. As the great experiment enters its fourth decade, it seems in a kind of holding pattern. One that can only last for so long before it breaks.

An earlier version of this story suggested TVNZ was ad-free prior to 1989. It has been updated to correct this error.


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