Public Television in a Small Country: the New Zealand ‘Experiment’ 20 Years On 
 Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington  

NZ On Air

New Zealand’s public broadcasting agency

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the neo-liberal styled restructuring and deregulation of New Zealand television which began in 1988 and was completed in May 1989. Since then, the repercussions of this ‘experiment’ have continued to resonate, underlining its impact as a major turning point for New Zealand public television – philosophically and institutionally – from which it has been almost impossible to withdraw. Offering an interim assessment of the impacts, Graham Murdock concluded that it was “a venture that [had] conspicuously failed.”1 Although not inaccurate given the ailing condition of ‘public service’ television (PSTV) in the late 1990s, Murdock’s judgement was issued at an early stage in the life of the new system and also preceded the strengthening of PSTV provisions and outcomes in the period 2000-08. Accordingly today, a full twenty years since the implementation of New Zealand’s TV experiment, seems an appropriate moment to reassess its PSTV consequences.

New Zealand television’s greatest challenge has been reconciling the limitations of a small national audience with the voracious appetites of a relatively expensive medium. With New Zealand-made programmes often lacking commercial viability and imported TV shows remaining comparatively inexpensive and abundant, television output has consistently been dominated by American, British and Australian programmes, leaving domestic productions comprising only 30-35 per cent of the total. Accordingly, PSTV objectives in New Zealand have focussed on maintaining a desirable range of New Zealand-made programmes in categories such as drama, documentary, comedy, children’s, Maori language, arts, and music, whose commercial fragility leaves them dependent on public funding.

Television’s 1988-89 restructuring and deregulation coincided with the final phase of a lengthy monopoly for the public network, Television New Zealand (TVNZ). The impending launch of TV3, New Zealand’s first private network and the expected arrival of other networks later, had helped to foster an overwhelming sense that New Zealand television needed major deregulatory as well as structural change. But highlighting the influence of neo-liberal ideology on this, it entailed the unprecedented rejection of traditional approaches to PSTV. Although the impacts were broader, restructuring and deregulation yielded two enduring changes – the commercial transformation of TVNZ and the creation of public broadcasting agency, New Zealand on Air (NZoA) – whose ‘public service’ consequences have been a distinctive feature of New Zealand television through the last twenty years.

TVNZ logo

TVNZ, New Zealand’s public television network

TVNZ was given a ‘strictly commercial’ remit, this reorientation also replacing the PSTV components of its tradition. The door to TVNZ’s commercialisation had been opened long before, in that this network had always operated semi-commercially, with advertiser funding increasing in proportion and influence through the 1970s and 1980s as public funding declined. What was new from 1989, however, was that TVNZ became more than 90 per cent dependent on advertising revenue. Although these details help quantify the philosophical departure from existing models of public television, TVNZ’s transformation went further, in that it emulated the ‘corporatization’ strategies that neo-liberal ‘reform’ had applied to other state-owned New Zealand companies.2 Commercially reliant and also profitable in this capacity because of its ratings dominance, TVNZ would thenceforth be required to return a share of its profits (an annual dividend) to the New Zealand Treasury. As a result of this reorientation towards commercialism, TVNZ was obliged to discontinue its historic practice of cross-subsidising PSTV programming with advertising revenue.

Having been downscaled following their 1988-89 removal from TVNZ, PSTV objectives in New Zealand programming were vested in the newly created public broadcasting agency, NZoA, whose statutory role was to allocate public funding to broadcast projects that could “reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture.”3 Exerting a profound influence on the kind of NZoA that developed, however, was its obligation to consider the “potential size of the audience likely to benefit” from the projects it funded.4 Although NZoA has also funded TV programmes for minority audiences, this instruction underlined that it was intended to facilitate a form of PSTV programming that valued accessibility, important to which would be TV programmes with broad appeal. Particularly because NZoA’s funding pool for television has always been limited,5 its money has gone only to projects/programmes that broadcast networks have agreed to air. Three other elements of NZoA’s operation have been important to its ability to reconcile a large ‘public service’ remit with a limited funding supply to maximise the PSTV outcomes. One is that its funding is disbursed competitively, an approach geared to match public funding with strong programme ideas. Another, that this money is disbursed directly to producers rather than to networks so that it buys programmes, not services. And third, that the resulting TV programmes can screen on private as well as public networks, provided they air on broadcast channels with national reach.


Maori Television is the flagship channel for New Zealand’s Maori network, MTS.

With Helen Clark’s Labour government providing an opportunity from 2000, ‘third way’ political thinking came to replace the neo-liberal agendas of the 1980s and 1990s. Although this government could not reverse TVNZ’s commercialisation, a revitalisation of public television was at least attempted. This effort centered on three main policy initiatives, two of which required new legislation in 2003.6 One was the return of ‘public service’ objectives to TVNZ through the imposition of PSTV Charter. Another was the long-awaited establishment of a non-commercial Maori TV service (MTS). Operating since 2004, its flagship channel, Maori Television, has aimed to address general as well as Maori audiences. Involving the creation of three more non-commercial TV channels in 2007-08, the third initiative was technologically facilitated by the establishment of a New Zealand version of the British Freeview service, a low-cost digital platform designed to maximise audience access to new digital TV channels, particularly those whose public status makes this important. Publicly-funded and together providing vastly increased outlets for PSTV programming, the new channels are TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, which complement TVNZ’s advertiser-funded channels, TV One and TV2, and Te Reo, whose Maori-language orientation complements the broader audience aims of its sister channel, Maori Television.

Testifying to the broad political and public perceptions that the NZoA model has been very effective, there have been no significant changes to it since 1989. There have, however, been some fluctuations in NZoA’s funding level, which underline that its key vulnerability (with the potential to reduce the range of TV programmes it can facilitate) remains the purchasing power of its annual government grant. Although it is ideally used to augment traditional PSTV institutions rather than being a replacement for them, the NZoA system has demonstrated some benefits for the delivery of PSTV programming, particularly where this needs to involve commercially-operating TV networks. Allocating TV production funding on a contestable, project-by-project basis, NZoA’s model encourages a competition between proposals in terms of their innovation and quality. Because it allows private as well public networks to air the resulting programmes, these can more flexibly follow viewers across the broadcast TV system, even though its ‘audience size’ requirement has necessitated that NZoA decisions match higher-cost TV productions with broadcast outlets involving higher levels of audience share.

The most significant problem arising from New Zealand’s television experiment has been the compromised position in which it has left TVNZ. Although this network now has two non-commercial channels to increase its PSTV potentials, TVNZ remains highly reliant on advertising revenue, ensuring that commercial imperatives drive its decisions. A formal part of TVNZ’s public remit since 2003, the TVNZ Charter has been supported by a very small public funding grant of just NZ$15 million (US$8.8 million) per year. Although a well-intentioned, highly appropriate attempt to return a public role to TVNZ, the Charter’s flaw was its expectation that TVNZ reconcile a set of ambitious, yet under-resourced PSTV expectations with its more significant obligations to advertisers. Even though it was hoped that its Charter expectations would facilitate a far stronger PSTV performance than was possible in the period 1989-2002, TVNZ has remained subject to the dividend requirement given to it in 1988. Accordingly, notwithstanding the benefits and potentials of the enhanced array of channels it now offers, TVNZ’s continuing conflict is that while its audiences still expect it to reward their loyalty with a ‘cultural dividend’ in the form of programmes, its government shareholders want TVNZ to maximise its profitability so as to maintain its financial dividend.

So what lessons might be extracted from New Zealand’s 1988-89 experiment in public television? With twenty years of operation and a substantial record of successful TV programmes now behind it, the resounding triumph of this experiment has been public broadcasting agency, NZoA. Designed to operate in a deregulated broadcasting system in which TVNZ would operate without a ‘public service’ remit or direct public funding, NZoA began as a radical alternative to existing approaches to PSTV in other countries, notably in the period 1989-2003 when it was the only institutional facilitator for PSTV programming in New Zealand. Gaining additional incentive from the very high stakes that were attached to its success in these years, NZoA pioneered a way to fund ‘public service’ outcomes on advertiser-funded networks and a system through which PSTV programming could be profiled despite New Zealand television’s increasing channel capacity and limited public funding. Becoming the experiment’s most problematic legacy in ‘public service’ terms, the TVNZ experience shows that, although it is not impossible for a public network to deliver PSTV outcomes when advertising revenue is part of its funding mix, the nature of that mix is the key determinant of its success or failure in this effort. Whilst TVNZ still struggles to reconcile the conflicting expectations upon it, its ‘public service’ potentials have at least received an overdue boost from the 2007 addition of two non-commercial channels, these operating to complement those of Maori network, MTS, to yield a more favourable rebalancing of commercial and ‘public service’ elements in New Zealand’s television system overall.

Image Credits:

1. NZ On Air
2. TVNZ logo
3. MaoriTV

Please feel free to comment.

  1. Murdock, G. (1997) “Public Broadcasting in Privatized Times: Rethinking the New Zealand Experiment”, pp. 9-33 in P. Norris and J. Farnsworth (eds.) Keeping it Ours: Issues in Television Broadcasting in New Zealand, Christchurch: New Zealand Broadcasting School. []
  2. Kelsey, J. (1998) The New Zealand Experiment: A World Model for Structural Readjustment? Auckland: Auckland University Press. []
  3. New Zealand Broadcasting Act (1989). []
  4. New Zealand Broadcasting Act (1989). []
  5. In 2008, for example, this was $NZ74.3 million (around US$43.9 million). []
  6. Both passed in March 2003, these were the Television New Zealand Act and the Maori Television Act. []

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