(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 9.)
So it’s been 50 years since New Zealand families first clustered eagerly around flickering black-and-white TV sets with long-forgotten brand names like Murphy, Pye and Majestic.
Presented with a golden opportunity to mark its most significant milestone, our state-owned flagship television network dropped the ball spectacularly, judging by most critical reaction. I struggle to recall a programme that has been more universally panned than TVNZ’s Cheers to 50 Years of Television.
Most people, it seems, felt cheated by a production that didn’t properly honour television’s rich legacy. It’s ironic, when you think about it: viewers at home seem to have a deeper appreciation of the impact television has had on their lives than the decision-makers who now run the medium.
But never mind. We all have our own private memories.
Television was late coming to my home town in the provinces. Until about 1963 it was a treat to be enjoyed only on visits to Wellington, when I would gaze transfixed at whatever was on the screen (although even then I learned of television’s capacity to disappoint when the TV version of Dennis the Menace, a mischievous character whom I much admired in his comic-strip form, turned out to be sanitised and saccharine-sweet).
Even after the television signal finally reached our town, it was a couple of years before my parents acquired a set. I would watch enviously as TV aerials appeared on the roofs of other people’s houses.
Those TV aerials were a potent and instantly visible status symbol, as was the type of set purchased. People who bought console models with 23-inch screens considered themselves a cut above those who could only afford 21-inch boxes on naked legs.
Of course the cost of the TV set didn’t always reflect the affluence of the owners. Just as Sky satellite dishes can now be seen attached to the most rundown houses, so low-income families in the 1960s often couldn’t resist the temptation to buy the most desirable TV sets.
I had a friend whose family was by no means well-off; in fact I think his father might have been on a benefit. Yet they were among the first people in town to get a TV set, and a flash one at that. Naturally he became a much closer friend from that point on, and I frequently got into trouble for arriving home late for dinner, having been detained by whatever programme was showing at my mate's place.
Those were the days when transmission began at 5pm. Old habits die hard, and to this day it still feels vaguely decadent to watch television before that hour (just as it is to pour a drink, but that’s another story).
Strangely enough, I struggle to recall the programmes that captivated me then. I was riveted by anything involving pop music, such as In the Groove or C’mon, and I vividly recall the mournful strains of the Coronation Street theme, which seemed to reflect the rather grim, working-class tone of the programme (as it was then) far better than it does the much more racy soap opera that Coro St has since become.
But the truth is that whatever was on, we watched. Such was the power and novelty of television then. I remember my father being a great fan of Z Cars, but my own youthful tastes tended more to sitcoms such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies and My Three Sons.
What’s not often appreciated is that television served, albeit unintentionally, as a socially unifying force. It brought the country together because everyone watched the same programmes; there was no choice. It naturally followed that everyone talked about the same programmes. Television became a social glue.
As Jim Hopkins, a former television journalist and astute commentator, wrote in his column in The New Zealand Herald recently: “The real magic wasn’t the programmes, it was the debates and conversations the next day in school grounds and smoko rooms and homes and over fences.”
It’s hard to believe now, but the country would come to a virtual standstill for certain programmes. An Australian friend once told me of coming to New Zealand on holiday during the late 1960s and going to the night trots – I think it was at Hutt Park – and being astonished when the racing was suspended so that everyone could watch the final episode of The Fugitive.
Similarly, Chris Bourn – the producer responsible for Studio One and other hugely popular light entertainment shows in the 1960s and 70s – recalled on Jim Mora’s radio programme last week that a Wellington City Council meeting was adjourned for the final of the British drama series The Planemakers.
Chris also mentioned that no one would schedule meetings on the night The Avengers screened – which reminded me that at boarding school, our evening study period ended early for the same reason. I wonder if the priests who ran the school realised the effect the black leather-clad Diana Rigg had on schoolboys’ raging hormones. We certainly didn’t watch the show for Patrick Macnee.
Television, by enabling us all to share a common experience, had the unexpected effect of bringing the country together. That unifying power was later to be exploited quite deliberately in the form of Telethon, a nationwide fundraising extravaganza – in fact a whole series of them – that generated a wave of excitement and energy from which not even the most curmudgeonly citizen could escape.
That was perhaps the high-water mark of television’s power in New Zealand, and it reminds us of a period which seems, in retrospect, quaintly folksy and naïve. It was a time when, as Chris Bourn rather wistfully said, we were still excited about television. Now it’s just a business.
Television New Zealand, which sprang from a strong tradition of BBC-style public service broadcasting, albeit modified to allow a degree of pragmatic commercialism, has turned its back on its origins and now appears wholly driven by revenue and ratings. Advertisers rule.
Attempts by the former Labour government to pull TVNZ back into line by means of a public charter were a failure. Now, under National, even that flimsy pretence of a public broadcasting ethos is being abandoned.
Oh well. It was good while it lasted.