AUCKLAND — After 30 years of legal battles to gain public funding and get on air in New Zealand, the Maori Television Service bowed March 28. Nine months later, it is fighting another battle — to increase its audience while meeting its obligations to promote the Maori language.
MTS screens programs with a Maori perspective, including news, sports and current affairs plus original programs made by independent Maori and non-Maori producers.
Critics have given upbeat reviews of the uniquely indigenous and laid-back programming, such as cooking show “Kai Time.”
But the channel has hardly registered on the ratings — Nielsen Media Research shows a cumulative audience of just 493,000 over 10 weeks during its second three months on the air. MTS has not released more recent figures, but estimates put it at a 1% share.
By comparison, the next smallest free-to-air channel is Prime, the New Zealand subsid of Australia’s Prime Television, with a 5% share.
Just under 4 million people live in New Zealand, a country the size of Colorado. Of this number, 9.7% are Maori.
MTS, based in Newmarket, Auckland, was created to underpin the survival of the Maori language. It is available as a terrestrial channel and free on the Sky digital platform, so it reaches a wide potential viewership.
But acting chief executive Ani Waaka says there are real problems in building the brand when there is no money for marketing.
The government committed NZ$11.5 million ($8.3 million) to cover the operating and funding capital costs of MTS for the year to June 30, 2004.
Te Mangai Paho, the Maori broadcasting funding agency set up by the government to dish out coin to the web and five Maori radio stations, provided $10.4 million to June 30, 2004, for inhouse program production, acquisition of international indigenous programs and subtitling.
Funding for the 2004-05 fiscal year is slightly higher at a combined $21million — tough even by the standards of New Zealand’s tight budgets.
The channel, run by a board of government appointees and a college representing Maori cultural interests, has had a bumpy gestation period since pols gave it the greenlight in 1998.
There was surprise in 2002 when MTS chairman Derek Fox appointed Canadian John Davy as the first chief executive. He quit after the media revealed that he had falsified his job qualifications.
Respected Maori broadcaster Derek Fox stepped in but soon ankled due to a harassment complaint from a senior MTS executive.
Soon after launch, program director Joanna Paul, one of the few executives with TV management experience, resigned in a bitter legal row.
Maoris have largely been left out of mainstream broadcasting and lack technical and management expertise — it is an ongoing battle to find Maoris with sufficient broadcast skills to work at MTS.
The channel has avoided a doctrinaire racial divide and allows non-Maoris to help the station on air.
Meanwhile, Waaka hopes a new sked from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., launched Nov. 1, will attract a bigger audience.
New shows include “Mika Live,” about a cross-dressing cabaret entertainer, and “Ngati NRL,” a reality show about Maoris who try out for the NRL professional football circuit in Australia.
Waaka says two-thirds of primetime programming is in Maori, and the push for more viewers will be helped by subtitles.
“We recognize attracting and retaining both Maori and non-Maori audience will be hampered without English subtitles, and these are featuring in more of our Maori-language programs as resource has allowed,” she says.
One of the many who are impressed by the channel’s progress is Maori broadcaster and filmmaker Tainui Stephens, who has served on the New Zealand Film Commission and pubcaster Television New Zealand.
“Sometimes there is evidence of production or journalist inexperience, but none of this detracts from the healthy growth and maturation of the channel,” he says. “The numbers are accelerating, and a lot of people are pleased.”