Peter Williams: 50 years of television news in NZ

Opinion 01/11/2019
Peter Williams. Credit: Supplied.

OPINION: This Sunday it is 50 years to the day since the first television network news show in New Zealand.

It was November 3, 1969 when a guy called Dougal Stevenson presented the first TV news bulletin that could be seen by every household in the country. I vaguely remember it, though I don’t know what was in it, I do know that it was a pretty significant moment in the history of the country.

You see up until then, we were not a very connected country. Yes we had a national transport network of NAC, as the domestic airline was called in those days, there was a more extensive rail network than now, we had interisland ferries from both Picton and Lyttleton to Wellington and there used to be networked radio news bulletins.

The telephone network was slow and expensive, so to get the same TV news show across the country on the same day was a seriously big deal, and of course it didn’t take long for the entire NZBC TV system to be networked, instead of the four regional stations we had.

Now for those of you who know a bit about me, this anniversary is a pretty big deal, because it seems I was in and around the national TV news operation for almost 40 of those 50 years.

The people who presented the news over the years became some of the most famous and most recognisable faces in the country. The three originals in Dougal Stevenson, Philip Sherry, the late Bill Toft, then Bill McCarthy and Tom Bradley, moving on to Richard Long and Judy Bailey, then Simon Dallow and Wendy Petrie who’ve been doing it for about the last 15 years.

Then there have been all the weather and sports presenters too; you became very familiar with a lot of people on the news over the years.     

But those faces are the ones at the end of a line, the ones with the easy job after all the work done by the reporters and producers and camera operators and editors.

Say what you like, TV news over the last half century has been a very significant force in this country and the evening news on TV1 has been the most significant of those shows. I think in terms of sheer audience size it is still the most watched TV programme in this country every night, and it has been pretty every night for the last half century.

That in itself says we as a country love our news, we complain like hell about it, about its bias, about the stuff that isn’t in it when it should be and vice versa, the politicians grizzle that they don’t get a fair go but they don’t get the big jobs unless they come across well on TV.

Muldoon was the first politician to realise the power of TV news but his problem was that he wanted to control its content as well as be on it. He was such a bastard with TV news that he once complained at, I think it was, Invercargill airport during the 1978 election campaign that it was a waste of time having two TV news crews to cover his appearance there and asking awkward questions, that he would make sure that the old TV2 news and TV1 news were amalgamated into just one organisation because it was a waste of money having two state owned news organisations, though they were competing with each other. 

And you know what, the very next year he did just that - as he combined the two state owned TV companies, TV One and South Pacific TV, into Television New Zealand, or TVNZ.  

The NZBC news from 1969 has evolved into 1 News today. For 30 of those 50 years the former 3 News, now Newshub, has been a very worthy, often - in my opinion - a superior product which has never had the mass audience support across the country that it deserved.

The sadness is that according to reports Newshub’s mere existence is under threat because of that lack of audience support - but that’s another issue. 

In this age of digital news and social media, the TV news does not have the influence it once had, but 50 years of TV news is still a milestone worth remembering and this country would be a much less connected and much less informed one if we hadn’t had TV news for the last half century.

Peter Williams is host of Mornings on Magic Talk and is a former news anchor for TVNZ.