The NZ TV Broadcast industry: a snapshot

Having just spent a stimulating couple of days in Portland at the What is TV conference, hosted brilliantly by the University of Oregon, I started to realise how little most of us, and I very much include myself in this, know about the realities of each other’s broadcasting systems. To try to mitigate this a little, I thought I would try to put together a quick post to provide the most basic of overviews of the shape of the NZ broadcast (specifically television) industry. By way of caveat, the NZ industry is not a direct area of expertise of mine, and so some of the details here may not be perfect, but hopefully it will be sufficient to serve as a snapshot.

Firstly, free to air. NZ currently has several channels that air free to anyone with the technology to receive them, although they do differ slightly from the US network model, as frequently one owner will have more than one competing free-to-air (FTA) channel. This proliferation of FTA channels is a relatively recent phenomenon, with NZ only having one channel until the mid 70s, and the third not launching until 1989. New Zealand’s first two FTA channels were (and still are) state owned, operating under a slightly odd mix of public service and commercial remit. How this balance has been achieved over the years has varied, with a license fee being charged until the late 90s, but commercials having been an expected part of television life for the length of my living memory, and as far as I am aware, as long as we have had the television broadcast. There has been a recent shift again in this balance, with the current government removing the public service mandate from the two main state owned channels, and putting more pressure on them to return a commercial dividend. I will include links at the end of the post to commentary far more eloquent than mine on this mixed model, and the recent shifts.

A third channel began in ’89, and although it quickly folded a few years later, it was reborn, and a fourth sister channel was added in ’97. These channels have always been commercially owned, with the current majority shareholders being CanWest, a Canadian media company who also own a large suite of radio stations in NZ.

It was in the late 80s that NZ first had pay TV options available, provided by the Sky network, which although it bears a similar name to a UK counterpart, does not appear to be a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (A commenter below has pointed out that a check of the Companies Office does indeed show News Corp to be a significant shareholder). Significantly, to me at least, these pay channels were at that point only available over the standard VHF/UHF spectrum, mainly because there was no existing infrastructure for any other types of television delivery, a factor which has shaped the direction television and Internet access in New Zealand. This pay service was very small to begin, a single channel each for movies, sports, news, and a general entertainment channel (I really have to qualify here that my memory of this is a little vague, but it still provides an idea of the basic shape and scale). The number of channels on this pay service has risen gradually since then, and near the end, I will sketch out the current shape of the pay TV offerings.

Another FTA network launched in the mid-late 90s, but suffered from a lack of differentiation/content, and also from being available only on the UHF network, and thus mainly only receivable by those with a pay TV subscription, or those who specifically purchased the technology to access it. This channel was eventually bought out by the Sky network, but remains FTA, as a strategic position which allows them to claim (contentiously) a PSB position in NZ, and also provides a stronger bidding position for sporting events that are of national interest, such as Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and World championship-type events.

One of the big shifts in the past 15 years was the launch in 2004 of a public-funded channel dedicated to the indigenous Maori language and culture. The channel features a mix of educational programming, popular programming (especially children’s programming) dubbed into te reo (the Maori language), reality tv formats adapted to specific local and community context, and internationally-sourced documentary and feature films, often with some sort of focus on indigeneity or indigenous peoples. In recent years, the channel has also bid on some sporting content, usually providing bilingual commentary. My understanding of the funding of this channel is that it comes from a dedicated funding source for the preservation of Maori language and culture, and as such, although it is state funded, the content and structure of the channel are outside government control. In recent years, the channel has had a slightly broader focus of sharing elements of Maori culture and language with all New Zealanders irrespective of their knowledge of te reo, and a second channel has launched which is completely in te reo, designed for those already fluent in the language. Once again, I will try to indicate some links/journal articles at the end.

Along with Maori Television, the other key recent shift in the broadcast industry, as it has been internationally, has been the shift toward digital broadcast. As I said earlier, infrastructure is not in place in New Zealand to provide cable television or Internet to the great majority of the population (the central business districts of 2 of NZ’s mid-size cities are served by cable thanks to the infrastructure investment of a single telco, but it is really only a small number of people served by this). The move towards digital broadcast saw TVNZ launch two new digital channels with public service remits, one aimed specifically at children and children’s programming, the second at locally produced public service content and imported documentary content of PSB interest. However, with a change in government, the funding to maintain these channels was not renewed, and has seen the children’s channel replaced with a youth-oriented commercial channel, and the PSB content channel to be replaced later this year with a home shopping network.

Thus television in New Zealand finds itself at an interesting position in 2012. Two main state-owned channels, with a purely commercial remit, with a couple of other state-owned digital channels aimed at niche markets, a handful of privately-owned FTA channels, and a single pay television provider, offering 100ish channels, some of which are regional variants of international channels (Food Network, E!, MTV), others of which are localised and specific (5 different sports channels, 5 film channels, a new “quality television” channel etc).

I have previously covered some of the ground here, albeit with a slightly different take, a couple of years ago. The first post covers similar ground, the second looks more at content. Those posts can be read here:

Useful links/papers etc

Trisha Dunleavy on the history of PSB in NZ:

Geoff Lealand on the deregulation of NZ TV:;dn=083650075782215;res=IELLCC

Peter Thompson on the contradictions of the TVNZ Charter:

Peter Thompson on the disappearing public sphere in NZ:

Comrie & Fountaine on Public Service Broadcasting & TVNZ:

Jo Smith on indigeneity and Maori Television:


3 thoughts on “The NZ TV Broadcast industry: a snapshot

  1. @ranoutofsoap

    Dude, you need to do some better fact checking. Your statement, “…the Sky network, which although it bears a similar name to a UK counterpart, does not appear to be a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp” is demonstrably false.

    News Corp has the largest shareholding in Sky Network Television Limited (Sky). A quick check of the Companies Office website or a flick through the annual report will confirm that for you.

    While not a wholly owned subsidiary, News Corp’s shareholding in Sky equates to approximately 44%, giving it effective control. This should be taken into account when considering Sky’s place in NZ broadcasting and the state of NZ television; to do otherwise results in an incorrect and incomplete view of the market.

    • Mark S

      I’m happy to stand corrected on that. I admit that I didn’t think to check the Companies office, but significant searching online failed to show up any obvious connection. The aim of this post was mainly to give international TV scholars a brief overview of a system outside their own, and so I didn’t put the same research into it that I would had I been seeking to publish.

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