NZ On Screen’s Zara Potts looks back at some of the current affairs shows that have informed and entertained us since the advent of television.

It has been said that one of the cornerstones for a truly democratic society is society's ability to be informed and participate in the political system.

Traditionally, that's where the fourth estate comes in. Current affairs shows have, throughout our television history, offered us glimpses behind the political curtains and revealed sometimes uncomfortable truths.

Through the work of investigative reporters and producers they have gone beyond the daily headlines and offered up analysis and interpretation of issues that affect us all – but in recent years there has been criticism about the scarcity of these shows, particularly when compared to the heyday of current affairs in the 70s.

The 70s and 80s were a boomtime for the format. It wasn't unusual to see hour-long shows, in primetime no less, devoted to current events. One of the earlier shows was Gallery (in which Brian Edwards made his name by helping to end the Post Office dispute).

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It began as a studio-based programme that focused on politics, but soon expanded its brief. This episode features an interview with a long-haired Bill Ralston – as interviewee instead of interviewer – talking about the upcoming nuclear tests at Mururoa.

Watch an excerpt from Gallery here:

Politics were all over our screens in the 1970s and The Friday Conference was no exception. The show aimed to be a forum for public discussion, with presenter Gordon Dryden interviewing newsmakers of the day. It was the first New Zealand current affairs programme to regularly use a studio audience. In this feisty episode, Dryden holds then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to account for broken election promises.

Watch The Friday Conference - One Year in Power here:

Rob Muldoon was a favourite when it came to current affairs shows. Producers loved him because he was always good 'talent' and could be counted on to say something controversial. The Tonight show had a fairly brief existence, but it became infamous for a battle of wills between journalist Simon Walker and Robert Muldoon. Watch as the PM becomes increasingly annoyed through the interview and takes a pot shot at Walker, calling him a "smart alec interviewer".

See the infamous episode of Tonight here:

In 1978 Eyewitness evolved out of TV2's After Ten as a twice-weekly current affairs show broadcast on Tuesday and Thursday nights. With Philip Sherry as studio anchor, it set out to investigate a single issue from several perspectives in each episode. By 1981 it had become NZ television's longest-running current affairs show. In this episode, reporter Karen Sims tags along with Muhammed Ali on his 1979 trip to New Zealand.

Watch Eyewitness here:

One of the earliest current affairs shows in New Zealand was Inquiry. Started in 1973, it was to be a weekly film programme that provided in-depth treatment of topical issues. The time frames were luxurious by modern standards – each programme had a three-week turnaround for research, editing and broadcasting. This episode deals with the grief that many New Zealanders felt with the sudden death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk in 1974.

Watch Inquiry – The Late Mr Norman Kirk here:

Who says current affairs are just for adults? The long-running afternoon show The Video Dispatch disproved that notion, presenting current affairs for younger viewers.
Legend has it some politicians also used it to get a handle on the news. The show's first presenter was Dick Weir, who in 1983 handed the reins to Lloyd Scott (best known at the time as Barry Crump's hapless pal in a series of Toyota ads). In this 1983 episode we get to grips with traffic safety and Galapagos tortoises.

Watch The Video Dispatch here:

In the mid-80s Close Up (not to be confused with the later nightly show) had a weekly brief to present mini-documentaries on topical local issues. Stories in the primetime hour-long slot were wide-ranging, from hard news to human interest pieces, including a profile of 25-year-old foreign exchange dealer, future-Prime Minister, John Key.

See John Key in Close Up here:

Frontline replaced Close Up as TVNZ's flagship, primetime current affairs show in 1988. Fronted by Ross Stevens, and made at Avalon at a time when TVNZ management had relocated to Auckland, it produced the controversial 1990 doco For the Public Good which explored the relationship between business and the Labour Government. In the fallout, TVNZ was sued, staff were sacked, and the office moved to Auckland. This episode looks at the extraordinary days after the 1984 election and is presented by one of New Zealand's finest current affairs hosts, Susan Wood.

Watch Frontline - Five Days in July here:

But in 1989, current affairs were about to get a major shake-up. Broadcaster Paul Holmes moved in for a nightly half-hour show that looked at the issues of the day. The show was as famous for its showmanship as it was for its journalism – no better example of the new style than in the very first episode where guest Denis Connor walked off the set, giving the show major headlines the next day and a boost in viewer numbers.

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Watch the Holmes Dennis Conner interview here:

Māori Television's flagship news show began in 2007, with a kaupapa of tackling current affairs from a Te Ao Māori perspective. Coverage of Waitangi Day, elections, plus investigations (eg into the Urewera Raids, Kiwi troops in Afghanistan, and management of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust) saw Native Affairs win acclaim from both critics and viewers.

Watch an episode of Native Affairs here: