IN her first week at Maori Television, Carol Hirschfeld received invitations to a fashion show, a rugby league game and a handwritten letter from the local Jewish society, wishing her a "hearty mazel tov".
It's television. But not as she has known it.
Two Friday nights ago, Hirschfeld left 25 years of news and current affairs, including five years as executive producer at Campbell Live, to take the head of programming job at Maori Television.
"It's a bit like the Tardis in here," she says, showing the Sunday Star-Times through her new workplace.
Offices and corridors spiral from a central hub, where people microwave lunches, read magazines and make coffee. Hirschfeld hasn't actually worked out how to use the coffee machine. The former newshound had quite a lot to get her head around in her first week.
Biggest blunder so far? That would be the meeting where she spent an entire hour referring to broadcasting funding body Te Mangai Paho as the more general funding body Te Puni Kokiri. To be fair, the latter is far more likely to be in a mainstream journalist's lexicon than the former.
"I tried to comfort myself, as I walked with my cheeks burning from the room, that it was a simple enough mistake... "
How much of a risk has Maori Television taken in putting Hirschfeld the woman her one-time co-presenter John Campbell calls "a really wonderful bloody boss" into a programming position?
"I've got a lot to learn," says Hirschfeld. "You don't immediately go into a programming position and start throwing your weight around."
Hirschfeld's job is brand new, following the reorganisation of the national indigenous broadcaster's programming department. She, and new head of programming for the Te Reo channel Eruera Morgan, report to a general manager, Haunui Royal.
Hirschfeld says she was "very strongly vetted".
"I have a really good, deep knowledge of how to use resources to make television cheaply and quickly. Maori Television has an enormous production slate, and the budgetary pool is not going to increase particularly, so I'm hoping I can be useful in that area."
Maori Television executives were surprised to get her application. TV3 was surprised to hear she'd sent one.
"That's what happens when you put a formal advertised position out there. It can bring out unusual candidates," says Hirschfeld.
But trawl through recent print interviews and it's clear change has been on her mind. In 2008, she told Next magazine, "I'm starting to think I don't have to work hell for leather the whole time. You come to a point where workplace success is rewarding ... you value other rewards too. That sounds so hoary and glib, but it's true."
It was her husband, former Listener editor and Sunday Star-Times columnist Finlay Macdonald, who cut the Maori Television job out of the paper.
"He said, `we'd like you to apply for this... it would offer you something new, something truly new. And the added bonus is we'd get to see you more'."
It was pretty nice, says Hirschfeld, to hear that after 22 years, her husband still wanted to spend time with her. She thinks he meant "we" in the royal sense but says she also owed the change to her children, Will, 14 and Rosa, eight. The former once, famously, sat her down and said: You do know that other people's families eat together at night? "I did have a twinge of loss," Hirschfeld says.
With a week of regular hours under her belt, she asked her eldest if he was finding it OK. "And he turned to me and said `it is awesome actually, mum and I'm not joking'."
HIRSCHFELD IS 46, but still doesn't look old enough to have children. It's impossible to write an article about Hirschfeld without stating the obvious and repeating what everyone's said before. She is a phenomenally attractive woman. A Maori Television staffer who was looking out the window at Hirschfeld's powhiri, two Mondays ago, told us, "I don't even think she was wearing makeup. She looked so raw, so beautiful, I had to turn away."
As a journalist, Hirschfeld has covered plenty of powhiri. "But it's utterly different when you are central. Your sense of what the occasion means is heightened... I had never been in a room where so many disparate strands of my life came together."
Hirschfeld's mother, who died when she was 10, is Ngati Porou, her father German.
"What I have never doubted or been unclear about is that I am Maori and I am very clear about where my whakapapa lies and the fact that I am descended from a strong line of women, and the older you get, the more pronounced it becomes. It just felt right to open myself and focus more fully and turn towards this part of my heritage."
Aunties, uncles, friends, family and colleagues came together for the welcoming ceremony. That morning, says Hirschfeld, she felt "like I was standing on a precipice, going off into the unknown in all sorts of ways. And the event really symbolised it".
Hirschfeld is happy to be a poster girl for the popularisation of Maori Television.
"I come late and humbly to something that has been cared for, for decades and decades. That this network has survived, and done so well in the face of naysayers, is a tribute to the people who kept the flame alive for generations."
She speaks Indonesian, thanks to a Javanese stepmother, a year in that country as a teenager, and university study in the language, but two attempts to learn te reo Maori have been thwarted ironically, by a busy work life.
"It's beautiful to be in a workplace where people are sliding between languages. It blows my mind."
Speaking Maori was not a requisite of the new job, which Hirschfeld says will involve commissioning programmes and overseeing internal and external programming. It's only September but her team is already planning its Waitangi Day schedule.
"It will look at immigration as a general theme... rather than seeing Waitangi as just a purely ceremonial day or a holiday or lacking meaning ... to invest it with something that is current, ongoing and being debated within Maoridom and Pakeha culture."
When Hirschfeld got the job, she was advised to "watch all the movies, all the documentaries because they're quite different to what's going on in mainstream television".
"There is a much stronger commercial edge to the documentary strands that are being programmed on TV3 or TVNZ," she explains. "You just have to look at TV1... there has been a cluster of programmes with gonzo-style female journalists, laddette Brits, who are either turning lesbian for a month, or are in search of the perfect vagina and they will go and do anything and everything. That is not the kind of documentary you will see turning up on Maori Television."
The network, says Hirschfeld, is not constrained by commercial imperative, but, "it's not just all... I was going to say something like `bran oats'... brown and chewy so it must be good for you!"
Analogies, she concedes, might be an area where she could improve.
"What I'm trying to say is it's not all earnest. There are many subjects that are significant and should be aired publically and be up for debate and if you get the treatment right it doesn't have to feel like it's earnest or that you are delivering people their morning porridge."
Her new office has no windows. Philip Temple's book A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields is sitting on her desk. So is a stack of budgets. There will be a meeting "in the next day or two" to set Hirschfeld's performance targets.
"I want to see a broader base of New Zealanders come and sample the service. Unusually, the majority of Maori Television viewers are Pakeha, aged 50-plus. Obviously, there is a younger Maori audience to reach. But it's a complicated business when you are trying to be a broadcaster to everyone, always."
Hirschfeld's career change might have been partly about finding better work-life balance but she's not here to rest on her laurels.
"I'm not a believer that you make assumptions about a reputation. From my end of television and media, you're only as good as your last story, your last programme. And it's always, always, a schlep, to be honest.
"I've dedicated most of my adult life to working in television. I consider myself a television professional and I'm not here to walk away from it all in the near future. Somebody has to end up having institutionalised knowledge about what they do, and I'd like to be one of those people."
How much power does Hirschfeld want? "At which point in my life?"
She says the expectation that she will achieve "has been high for so long, that I don't understand what it would be like if it wasn't. I want to lead, to be honest, and I need to learn a whole new set of skills here before I can take that on with confidence. But as I get older, I think the need for women to stand up and lead, both in the Maori community and across the board, it's crying out. So why shy away from it?"
Suggest that mainstream television could do with more older, female voices, and the woman who has worked alongside everyone from Ian Johnstone to Paul Holmes to Campbell, agrees.
"I see it happening here, and that makes my heart sing... but mainstream is risk adverse, that's the reality.
"I've had these conversations with people, and they say `no, no. it's not like that'. And I think well, `offer the job'. Don't say it's not like that, when all you can see [on major networks] are women below a certain age. It's not the same for men."
Think this is a new, bolshier Hirschfeld than we've seen for a while? Think again. "When I was captain of the D-grade netball team in Standard Three, I may have been told I showed leadership qualities. Once they said that, I thought `OK, is that a licence?"'
And then she answers her own question. "Pretty much!"
- © Fairfax NZ News
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