Exploring the impact of Māori Television

The channel has contributed to political and cultural revitalisation for Māori and shaped notions of nationhood, says media researcher Jo Smith.

It’s hard to imagine New Zealand without Māori Television. From Kai Time on the Road to its current affairs shows and Anzac Day broadcasts, it has become an established part of our media landscape since it launched in 2004.

Yet as New Zealand’s first national indigenous TV channel, Māori Television faces questions other public broadcasters are rarely asked. Is it Māori enough? How does it affect our ideas about identity? How effective has it been at promoting te reo Māori? And how do we measure its performance beyond ratings alone?

The complex dynamics underpinning Māori Television are the subject of a book by Associate Professor Jo Smith from the School of English, Film, Theatre, Media and Communication, and Art History at Victoria University of Wellington.

A rare example of a Māori-centred media project, her book Māori Television: The First Ten Years is believed to be the first in-depth study of Māori Television by university researchers. It is her first book, although she has written book chapters and articles in journals such as ArenaContinuumTransnational CinemasSettler Colonial Studies and AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples.

Associate Professor Smith (Waitaha, Kati Māmoe and Kāi Tahu) says the work reflects her long-term commitment to the cultural politics attached to television, media and popular culture more generally. A women’s studies major whose PhD topic examined colonial stereotypes in arthouse cinema, Associate Professor Smith has always been interested in the politics of identity.

Her book is the result of an externally funded project that was awarded a $770,000 Marsden Fund grant from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The grant funded the three-year investigation into Māori Television’s contribution to political and cultural revitalisation for Māori, and how it has shaped notions of nationhood since its launch.

Māori Television: The First 10 Years features interviews with more than 50 members of the Māori media sector, including language advocates, viewers, academics, independent producers and Māori Television staff members. For the first year of the project, Associate Professor Smith carried out the interviews along with Dr Sue Abel, from the Department of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland.

“The project took a media studies and Māori studies approach, drawing on interviews and focus groups as well as close analysis of policy documents and programming,” says Associate Professor Smith.

“I felt kōrero with Māori media sector participants was a very important aspect of the project. There’s a real richness to the stories told about delivering Māori television to its various audiences.

“To engage with this kōrero well, you have to be an empathetic and careful listener and be prepared to have your own thinking shifted, and enlivened, by those you have engaged with.”

When Māori Television was set up, its mandate was to protect and promote te reo Māori and tikanga Māori; to inform, educate and entertain a broad viewing audience; and to enrich New Zealand society, culture and heritage. As a Treaty of Waitangi-based organisation, says Associate Professor Smith, it is under pressure to be innovative and also inclusive.

Despite the many different ways Māori Television is held to account, Associate Professor Smith believes its first decade has been a success.

“Māori Television has done an incredible job. It is a crucial contributor to language revitalisation and an agent of change in terms of thinking about cultural citizenship,” she says.

“It’s also leading the way in terms of how indigenous media can be made. It doesn’t just contribute to notions of New Zealand nationhood, it shines a light on issues shared by indigenous cultures globally.”

Associate Professor Smith says challenges for the channel include being responsive and accountable to its audiences. There’s also the question of its relationship to the state, which has been criticised by some commentators.

“Māori Television is an agent of change, but it is also an institution tied to state benevolence, and some people say that is holding it back.”

There may not be a definitive answer to the question of whether Māori Television is Māori enough, says Associate Professor Smith.

“Some people say Māori Television is Pākehā television with a brown face because it mimics existing genres and is state-funded and not Māori enough. We need to have a healthy public space where we can debate these questions, and we need to be robust enough to have that debate, especially given the lack of investment in public service TV more generally.”

While the media industry is tied to ratings, Associate Professor Smith regards them as a crude measure of success. She suggests we need kaupapa-based means of evaluating Māori Television, similar to those already used in parts of the health, environment and education sectors, to determine whether the channel fosters hauora, or well-being, and its relationship to underlying issues of tino rangatiratanga, or sovereignty.

While Associate Professor Smith says it’s important to take a longitudinal view of Māori Television’s impact, she believes we can already say it has increased the level of te reo Māori heard on the air, produced some outstanding te reo-speaking role models, and been innovative in its programming.

“We need te reo in our homes, our streets, our schools. Māori Television is a crucial archive for the future, and it is a taonga for Aotearoa.”