Storytelling before television
Māori have always celebrated the role of the storyteller. In a traditional society with a rich oral tradition, speakers and singers held a special place. They interpreted the world around them and explained it in stories. They delivered their tales with meaning and style to the eager audiences in the village.
In a whakapapa view of the media, the television broadcasters of today are junior siblings (teina) to their elders (tuakana) of the marae, and of print, radio and film. The birth and growth of Māori television has happened because of the connections and contributions of many people from all branches of the family tree of tribal storytellers. It was a natural evolution: from the kōrero (storytelling) to the script, from the marae to the screen.
In the early years of New Zealand television, Māori appeared as guest performers. The first broadcast on 1 June 1960 featured the wildly popular Howard Morrison Quartet. They typified the Māori ability to entertain a mainstream audience. A few Māori – including Morrison – became presenters with wide popular appeal. Others appeared with distinction in local drama and entertainment productions, notably in the first popular local drama series, Pukemanu (1971–72).
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, Marama Martin was the Māori person most often seen on television. A continuity announcer with a warm and attractive manner, she told viewers what programmes would be shown later in the day. Martin was the first person to be seen in colour when television broadcasts switched from black and white.
Māori programme content in the 1960s was rare and generally confined to light entertainment or the arts. Sometimes current-affairs stories showed the problems encountered by Māori, who were then in the difficult throes of urbanisation. These programmes were all made by Pākehā. In the next decade, this was to change.
A new consciousness: the 1970s
During the 1970s New Zealand heard the strident voice of a new Māori consciousness. A committed core of urban young people began to agitate for reform. By this point in modern Māori history, the biggest focus was on matters of identity, in particular the sorry state of the Māori language.
In 1972 a large group of students and their elders led by Hana Te Hemara presented a petition of more than 30,000 signatures to Parliament in support of te reo Māori (the Māori language). This was a pivotal moment. In the short term the petition added to the pressure on the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and helped those within it who wanted to see more Māori on television. In the long term, te reo Māori was to be the cause célèbre that would pave the way for a singular indigenous broadcasting voice.
It has been suggested that in the early 1970s New Zealanders were more likely to see African Americans on television than Māori.
Tangata whenua and other programmes
In 1974 the Māori-focused television series Tangata whenua stunned the country. These six documentaries from Pacific Films were fronted by Pākehā historian Michael King. The director was Barry Barclay of Ngāti Apa. It was a study of a contemporary Māori world in uneasy transition. Each episode presented an intimate insight into traditional views of tribe, family, past and present. None of this had been seen before by so many people, all at once.
Barclay made these documentaries in a manner that set both example and inspiration for future Māori television production. He showed that if a programme was made in a Māori way, it could have a wairua (spirit) – like any taonga (treasure). Barclay faced his ignorance about his own culture with a sense of humility and often placed his camera at some distance from the elders. This gave the series an easy sense of respect and intimacy. Barclay always believed that a camera should have good manners.
Other Māori programmes made in the 1970s included documentaries (including Kapiti: island of spirits, 1973, and The Maori land march, 1975), drama (Uenuku, 1974, and Death of the land, 1979) and current affairs (Pacific viewpoint).