The little station that could

THE ENGINE ROOM: Haunui Royal, Carol Hirschfeld and Julian Wilcox form the backbone of Maori TV.
THE ENGINE ROOM: Haunui Royal, Carol Hirschfeld and Julian Wilcox form the backbone of Maori TV.

There will, in all likelihood, be cake. Possibly even balloons and streamers. And certainly, given this is a Maori venture, some singing will be inevitable.

Maori Television is about to celebrate its 10th birthday. Why should we care? We should care because this feels for once like a party we're all part of, a genuine milestone, rather than just another media marketing opportunity. This is, after all, a broadcaster that's had a significant positive effect on New Zealand society.

Launched on March 28, 2004, the channel offers the kind of compelling and informative shows that are increasingly thin on the ground elsewhere on free-to-air telly: Incisive documentaries from here and abroad; home-grown arts and music shows; in-depth current affairs programmes; subtitled feature films made by indigenous peoples in other nations; high quality children's programmes delivered in both Maori and English.

Given New Zealand's lack of publically-funded educational TV channels, some have taken to referring to Maori Television as this country's "de facto public broadcaster".

But there's no "de facto" about it. Maori Television is a public broadcaster to the core. Operating on an annual budget of $55 million, with about $35 million coming from the state via Maori broadcasting funder Te Mangai Paho, the channel is liberated from the need to chase ratings.

There's no incentive to banish thoughtful, socially-conscious programming to abysmal time-slots so big-budget overseas series can dominate prime time and offer the most attractive platform to advertisers. Maori Television was set up to inform and educate as well as entertain, and broadcasts more locally-produced content than any other New Zealand TV channel.

"We have somewhere between 95 and 97 per cent local content," confirms general manager of production, Carol Hirschfeld (Ngati Porou). "We make so much television, it's scary! And we've been a public broadcaster right from the beginning; it's just that people didn't necessarily see us that way. As networks like TVNZ abdicated from their traditional role, it became starker and starker that we were the repository of the country's cultural heritage. We speak to nationhood in a way that the other channels no longer do, and that will always be part of our remit."

Hirschfeld knows the local TV industry inside out. After 12 years at TVNZ, working on such key shows as Frontline, Assignment, Crimewatch and Fair Go, she moved to TV3 and delivered the evening news alongside John Campbell between 1998 and 2005. She later became executive producer of Campbell Live before joining Maori Television in 2009.

Given the range of options available to her within the industry, what made her jump ship to a smaller, more niche broadcaster? "There's a lot of youthful vitality here, and a lot of originality that isn't immediately stifled as it can so easily be with bigger, more commercially driven broadcasters. And there's a wider brief in what you can do here. For example, one reason our bid to broadcast the 2011 Rugby World Cup was supported was that we could guarantee we'd run it free-to-air in prime time. Other broadcasters can't do that. Same with the Christchurch telethon, and our extended coverage of things like Anzac Day and Waitangi Day. We can turn over entire days of programming to covering those things in depth, and commission associated programmes to support that coverage."

She points out that Maori Television is primarily a language revitalisation organisation. Its crown funding requires that at least 51 per cent of the broadcast schedule must be in Te Reo Maori. "The vast majority of our programming needs to have some sort of language and culture outcomes, so even when we run films and documentaries, they need to somehow support that."

And despite a modest budget, intense commercial competition and few big mainstream "magnet" shows, people are tuning in in decent numbers. Neilsen audience surveys confirm that Maori Television attracts an impressive monthly audience of 1.6 million viewers; that's one third of all New Zealanders aged five years and over, and more than half of the country's Maori population. Last year, 1.3 million people visited the website for on-demand "catch up" viewings.

Hirschfeld identifies four main groups who tune in: A smallish core audience of fluent Te Reo Maori speakers; a far larger group she calls "receptive Maori", who are engaged with their culture and possibly learning to speak the language; a third group of media-savvy "digital native" Maori teenagers and young adults; and a large Pakeha audience.

Are there shows she thinks hit all these demographics? "A huge

audience driver for us across all categories is Kapa Haka. It has so much grace and drama, it really pulls people in. Audiences also love our hunting show, Hunting Aotearoa. I'll be away somewhere, sitting at a dinner table in Dunedin, say, and someone will inevitably bring up that show."

Another broad-based hit is Songs From The Inside, in which four high-profile local musicians teach songwriting to predominantly Maori inmates within Auckland prisons. "It's an entertainment show on one level, but also about social issues. You see something you don't see on television very often, with its various kinds of manufactured journeys, and that's authentic change. It's not constructed reality; it's real life, and it's genuinely moving."

So, too, is Homai Te Pakipaki, a down-home music show like no other, in that it treats singing primarily as a communal act - a way of entertaining friends and whanau - rather than a focus for personal ambition. "Yes, it's entertainment with a very Maori flavour, in that it celebrates manaakitanga, or hospitality. It has a large audience, even though it's up against the production values of things like X Factor and NZ Idol. It's unusual in that it's very welcoming and un-slick; anyone can rock up to the studio on a Friday night and have a go."

Other audience drawcards include food/travel series Kai Time On The Road and Marae Kai Masters, flagship current affairs show Native Affairs, evening news bulletin Te Kaea, and a wide range of sports shows.

G IVEN MAORI Television's success, it's easy to forget that so many expected it to fail. Julian Wilcox (Ngapuhi, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Arawa) is general manager of news and current affairs. A veteran of Maori radio and TVNZ's Te Karere, he has played a key role in the channel's development, most notably as former presenter of Native Affairs, for which he won Best Presenter News and Current Affairs at the 2012 NZ Film and Television Awards, edging out John Campbell and Mike McRoberts.

"At the start, there was nothing here, just a shell of a building in Newmarket," he says. "It was pretty raw back then, and there was a lot of negativity. There was a lot of turbulence in the early management structure, for a start."

Turbulence is putting it mildly. Hired as Maori TV's first chief executive in 2002, Canadian John Davy resigned in disgrace after only six weeks in the job when it was discovered he had falsified his qualifications. He was subsequently jailed for eight months on fraud charges. Davy's replacement, Derek Fox, resigned six months later, allegedly over a human resources issue with a colleague.

"Around the same time you also had a heap of National politicians saying, ‘this is a complete waste of taxpayer's money; we should just spend the money on books, because Maori kids can't read'," says Wilcox with a sigh. "Sadly, that was the tone of the debate. We were a lightning rod for a lot of race-related issues at the time. People thought we'd be lucky to last 10 days, let alone 10 years, but internally, we were really confident that we were gonna keep this thing going."

When the opening day finally came, Wilcox wept. "Our kaumatua fought for decades to get this off the ground, now here we were, with over 4000 Maori outside this place, celebrating that it had finally happened. I remember thinking, ‘this is gonna be big' and it is!"

Given the initial nervousness, Wilcox says it's remarkable that 60 per cent of the audience is now non-Maori. "I feel a huge sense of pride working here, because I think the country's a lot better because of Maori Television. Non-Maori are a lot more accepting of things Maori than they were before we existed, with more of them prepared to give the language a go. Maori TV has been a safe zone for people who want to dip into this culture more, like a window onto things Maori."

A window for some, perhaps. For others, a mirror. An experienced producer and director who joined Maori Television in 2003, Haunui Royal (Ngati Raukawa, Parehauraki, Ngapuhi) is general manager of programming. He believes the station has become embedded in the lives of its core audience because it reflects a positive side of Maori culture under-represented elsewhere.

"The Maori audience tune in because they want to see themselves affirmed as worthwhile, creative and intelligent people. When you're a Pakeha, it's easy to underestimate how much daily affirmation you're getting, because the majority of TV, radio and newspapers tend to be fairly positive about Pakeha culture. But if you're Maori, you're endlessly portrayed as either aggressor or victim, and that constant diet of negativity takes its toll. That's one of the main reasons Maori wanted their own channel: To present a far wider range of Maori perspectives that challenged the roles we're often assigned by mainstream media."

D ON BRASH'S Orewa speech, the Foreshore and Seabed hikoi, the formation of the Maori Party, the Global Financial Crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes: For a Maori perspective on the turbulent decade that's unfolded since Maori Television's inception, there's a special 10th anniversary documentary called Through The Lens screening at 8.30pm this Friday.

And once the birthday cake's all gone and the streamers have been taken down, what then? What does the future hold for Maori TV? A bulging kete of new shows, for a start. Launching in July is bilingual current affairs series Media Take, featuring Toi Iti, the actor son of Maori rights activist Tame Iti, alongside journalist Russell Brown, who fronted earlier versions of the show on TVNZ7 and TV3.

Judy Bailey, Wena Harawira and Julian Wilcox will host this year's Anzac Day coverage, with Maori Television recently granted $200,000 by NZ On Air to film the Chunuk Bair service at Gallipoli as NZ's official host broadcaster.

Co-presented in Maori by former Silver Fern Jenny-May Coffin, Maori TV will be screening the upcoming ANZ netball championship, and will run delayed screenings of all Vodaphone Warriors games free-to-air from March with a bilingual commentary. A new fishing show called Get Your Fish On starts in May, in which a crew of female fishers takes on local men around the country, with the losing team cooking the winners a feed.

And to help make learning the language fun for the mokopuna, the channel's currently revoicing popular children's cartoons Dora The Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants in Te Reo Maori.

In other words, it's business as usual. "I'm optimistic that we'll remain highly successful in the coming years," says Hirschfeld. "Already we're seeing a level of ease about Maori language and culture that just wasn't there when I was at school, and Maori Television has been a part of that change."

Julian Wilcox agrees. "We've already done a lot to increase the use and status of Te Reo Maori among all New Zealanders. My dream for Maori Television in another 10 years is that it remains an organisation that celebrates Maori success, and that it's seen by all New Zealanders - whether they be immigrant communities, Maori or Pakeha - as their station. Even though it's called Maori Television, I'd love everybody to look at it and go, ‘that's the people's station. That's my station'."

Sunday Star Times