John Drinnan: Changes ahead for Maori TV

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New boss says successful service needs to stay fresh

Maori TV will continue to have an investigative current affairs show, says Paora Maxwell. Photo / Sarah Ive
Maori TV will continue to have an investigative current affairs show, says Paora Maxwell. Photo / Sarah Ive

Six months into his role as chief executive of the Maori Television Service, Paora Maxwell has revealed he is looking at a fresh strategy for the broadcaster.

There is a widespread belief among staff - and in parts of Maoridom - that Maori TV has been a success and should not be changed.

But Maxwell said that after 10 years, the Maori Television Service could not rest on its laurels. It was dangerous not to refresh its strategies, he said.

Maxwell's contentious appointment - staff petitioned against him getting the job - has occurred in tandem with a wider restructuring of Maori broadcasting.

Under the policy, driven by the Maori Party, a new body called Te Matawai would oversee MTS, the broadcasting funding agency Te Mangai Paho and the Maori Language Commission.

In the meantime, TVNZ has announced it is scrapping its Maori unit and outsourcing Maori content to the private sector.

So the Maori broadcasting sector is going through huge change.

The Maori affairs select committee will next month consider the Te Matawai policy. The closing date for submissions is Friday, December 5.

On the face of it, the proposed changes would give iwi representatives greater influence over strategies for MTS - though not directly over programming.

Maxwell has played down the prospect of upheaval from the restructuring, or from his own freshening of the MTS strategy.

He said Maori TV's role in protecting and promoting te reo was set in stone through legislation.

Maxwell said he was looking at new ways to boost revenue with sponsorship, and seeking more content partnerships with government agencies.

Maori TV has a small sales and marketing team, but as a niche broadcaster there is limited demand for ad space. In the year to June 2013 it reported advertising revenue of $1.28 million.

While Maxwell is looking for partnerships, sponsorship and co-productions, he said it was important for Maori TV to retain intellectual property rights.

Current affairs

Maxwell's appointment as CEO coincided with the Maori Party-driven plan to restructure Maori broadcasting.

The planned new structure would give more influence to iwi, who are more conservative than the current overseers of Maori TV - the Crown and an electoral college - and some observers fear that will result in less questioning of authority.

Furthermore, Maori control of radio frequencies could potentially lead to the development of iwi TV channels that would compete with the centralised voice of Maori TV.

But Maxwell plays down both issues.

Maori TV was created by legislation after a long legal fight that found the Crown had an obligation to support and promote the Maori language. Making TV was costly and it was best to keep it centralised, he said.

But although its role was established, that did not mean it would go on doing the same thing. Avoiding change would be a dangerous thing to do, he said.

Perhaps most important for news and current affairs staff - and for non-Maori viewers whose main experience of MTS is through watching the current affairs show Native Affairs - he has said MTS will continue to have an investigative current affairs programme.

The hard-hitting but appealingly old-fashioned style of the show, fronted by Mihingarangi Forbes, has won plaudits from critics who saw it as a reminder of a more substantial form of current affairs, at a time when commercial media have turned to lightweight frippery.

A bitter row over Native Affairs and its investigation of Te Kohanga Reo National Trust has been central to allegations it has become "too Pakeha-fied", using the same aggressive techniques as mainstream media.

The worry for some is that Maori TV will be wary of offending the establishment and aim more at Maori language purists, thus reducing the number of viewers.

Maxwell said the Kohanga Reo Trust investigation was deserved and had integrity, and that was backed by the show being cleared after complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Maori TV should and would still do investigative stories, he said.

"When you challenge the establishment you are going to get kickback," he said. "If there was any criticism from me it is about the tone. Tone is difficult to balance and it is difficult whenever a younger person is inquiring about an older establishment person." Moving house?A push to move Maori TV from Auckland to Rotorua has also heightened concerns among staff about greater iwi influence over the broadcaster.

Arawa tribes have been working with the Rotorua District Council, and leading educator Sir Toby Curtis has talked about building "iconic" new studios in the city and has been meeting with other iwi. It is understood that Ngati Whakaue has offered a lakefront site.

Maxwell, who is of Te Arawa descent, said local enthusiasm for the idea did not mean the station would be moving.

The lease on its facilities in Newmarket runs out in 2017 and there were various options to be considered, including moving elsewhere in Auckland.

Views are mixed. Some believe Maori TV should remain in Auckland because the service is "pan-tribal" and should be divorced from any iwi rivalries and because Auckland is also central to the broadcasting industry infrastructure.

Maxwell said no area was tribally neutral, Auckland included.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

Read more by John Drinnan

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