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From Butt-head to Bravo: Happy 20th birthday to New Zealand’s fourth TV channel

From Beavis and Butt-head to Drew and Shannon, TeleTrader to the Champagne Lady, Calum Henderson looks back on the first 20 years of New Zealand’s fourth TV channel.

In 1997, I spent a week of intermediate school metalwork classes carefully etching the TV4 logo onto a sheet of copper. That is how excited I was that New Zealand was getting a fourth television channel.

After school I would go home and watch the new channel’s test pattern, which played a loop of clips from shows like Beavis and Butt-Head and Harry Enfield & Chums in a tiny box in the middle of the screen. Every night I would sit through several cycles of the loop before going to bed and dreaming of the day when I could watch the full episodes.

I was 12 years old and absolutely chomping at the bit for youth-oriented programming. And then finally, one chilly day in June, TV4 officially launched. Here’s what happened next.

1997-2003: TV4

On the 29th of June in the year of our lord 1997, New Zealand officially got its fourth television channel. A youthful companion to TV3, the early TV4 schedule featured a comedy-centric line-up of shows mostly from the US and UK.

Probably the most exciting ones came straight off MTV: Beavis and Butt-Head was obviously a huge drawcard, as was the debauched dating show Singled Out. The Real World, meanwhile, was quickly overshadowed by one of TV4’s first New Zealand-made shows, Flatmates.

TV4 also offered one of the greatest after-school / early evening runs New Zealand has ever seen with its suite of Peter Engel-produced high school sitcoms. Saved By the Bell was the original and best, and it screened alongside a combination of Saved By the Bell: The New Class, California Dreams, Hang Time and USA High to make for a solid gold hour-and-a-half of programming each night.

As the years wore on and the lustre of TV4 wore off, the channel was forced to seek out new audiences. One innovation brought to New Zealand television around the turn of the millennium was TeleTrader live classifieds, an early sort of precursor to TradeMe. “It like a giant garage sale at the end of your phone,” Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt explained in a beguiling ad for the service.

Shadbolt had seemingly agreed to front the ad campaign under the condition that the channel also screened a three-minute ad promoting the city of Invercargill. It remains one of the strangest things ever screened on New Zealand television.

2003-2011: C4

Our fourth channel entered its second age on the 3rd of October 2003, rebranding as C4 and going all-in on music videos. By this stage I was nearing the end of high school and had become deeply insufferable. The changeover barely registered; it is likely that I considered C4’s music selection ‘too commercial’.

In hindsight the channel seems quite cool. It was surely no coincidence that the mid-2000s was such a boom time for New Zealand music when C4 (along with rival music video channel Juice) was operating at full steam.

I got more into C4 when I was at university and contrarily started listening to the Top 40 again. One of the channel’s best features during this period was UChoose40 – a weekly themed countdown voted by C4 viewers. At the height of emo, the countdown was almost guaranteed to feature ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ by My Chemical Romance somewhere in the top three places, regardless of the week’s theme.

C4’s peak, however, was the Drew Neemia and Shannon Ryan era of Select Live. To pinpoint the afternoon show’s absolute zenith is easy: the 28th of April 2010, the day a tiny child called Justin Bieber was the studio guest. His interview with Neemia –  in many ways New Zealand’s own Bieber – is best remembered for the singer failing to comprehend the New Zealand-accented pronunciation of of the word “German”. The pair’s off-air patter is 12 minutes of the greatest comedy this country has ever produced.

2011-2016: FOUR

The third age of New Zealand’s fourth channel began on February 6, 2011, with the rebrand to FOUR and a move back to regular comedy and drama programming. This wasn’t strictly the end of C4 – it relocated to another channel which had since been established as C4 2, where it survived until 2014.

On paper FOUR’s line-up was a lot stronger than TV4’s had ever been. FOUR had The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park; New Girl, Glee and How I Met Your Mother. But by 2010 broadcast television was already starting to lose its foothold, and FOUR’s programming was a lot more risk-averse than either of its predecessors.

FOUR’s lasting legacy will probably be its local children’s programming. It premiered the extremely popular Moe Show in 2014 and broadcast several hundred hours of Sticky TV, including the popular  ‘Kanoa, Mon and Walter’ era.

The channel’s final moments are described with surprising poignancy on Wikipedia: “At 10:50pm on Saturday 2 July 2016, [FOUR] closed with Feist singing ‘1,2,3,4’ (the same Sesame Street song that was used to relaunch the channel in 2011); the channel then faded to black. The final show to play on FOUR was The Biggest Loser.”

2016-????: Bravo

For many New Zealanders the real channel four ended on that dark July evening in 2016. Technically, though, it continues to live on in a fourth age – the age of Bravo.

The wall-to-wall American reality channel debuted on the 3rd of July 2016. It offered a schedule rife with property shows and a variety of Real Housewives franchises, which before long came to include the channel’s only New Zealand production Real Housewives of Auckland. This show is responsible for Bravo’s only positive contribution to New Zealand society to date: the emergence of the Champagne Lady, Anne Batley-Burton.

A world without the Champagne Lady simply doesn’t bear thinking about. Just knowing she is out there somewhere quaffing champagne and feeding stray cats is enough to turn a grey sky blue. The outtake in which she talks about her pet gull and communicates with her dead cats through a pet psychic is one of the great pieces of New Zealand television, and it wouldn’t exist without Bravo.

It would be easy to scoff at a channel like this and say things were better in my day, but who knows – maybe somewhere out there is a 12-year-old with a penchant for high-end real estate and an unquenchable thirst for conflict between middle-aged women. Bravo is the channel for them. I hope they feel the same way about it as I felt about TV4, 20 years ago.


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