Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Sun Mar 27 03:35:42 UTC 2005

26.03.05 by Geoff Cumming

[photo inset - Veeshayne Armstrong says Maori Television has made a huge
difference to her and her son Hohaia's Maori language learning. Picture
/ Glenn Jeffrey]

Throughout her 13-year career in Maori broadcasting, Veeshayne Armstrong
got by on a limited grasp of te reo. Growing up in Moerewa, both her
parents spoke Maori but would never use it at home. "Their attitude was
the Maori language wasn't going to do anything for you."

Times have changed.

Armstrong studied Maori in school but did not become a fluent speaker.
Still, she picked up a Maori broadcaster of the year award with Mai FM
and has worked in film and television, including a part in the
acclaimed The Maori Merchant of Venice.

Finally this year she enrolled in an intermediate-level Maori language
course at AUT. To be able to go home and switch on Maori TV to hear and
put in context what she's learning in the classroom is a huge bonus, she

Her 8-year-old son, Hohaia, is also a fan of the Maori Television
Service. Hohaia attends a kura kaupapa immersion unit as part of his
schooling at Newton Central Primary. When he gets home, like many kids
his age, he switches on TV. He listens to the news in Maori, watches
shows in Maori - his favourite is a surfing show "because one of my
best friend's Dad's in it".

"He's really excited about it," says Armstrong. "It's another choice to
just watching Sticky TV or SpongeBob."

Maori households such as Armstrong's won't be the only ones on Monday
celebrating the first anniversary of the Maori Television Service.
Teacher Karen Leuschke never misses an episode of Korero Mai, the
nightly language and cultural instruction programme, with its built-in
soap, Akina.

"It's the first soap I've ever watched," says Leuschke, the year 12 dean
at St Cuthbert's College, who has "not an ounce" of Maori blood.

"People know never to ring between 7 and 7.30. I organise my evenings
around it. It's got charm, it's got integrity and it's lots of fun."

Akina has garnered the sort of viewer loyalty more commonly associated
with Coronation Street or Shortland St: its producers flooded with mail
when a character is written out, fans writing with condolences or to
wish characters luck.

The programme uses repeated phrases, with timely interventions by
presenter Piripi Taylor, to teach te reo. Episodes are repeated for
three days with a revision programme on Sundays.

"I knew Maori words but couldn't put them together," says Leuschke, who
teaches languages, among other subjects. "The system they use suits me,
having a little bit of tikanga [culture] and waiata.

"I think it's important for all us to know a little bit of Maori and now
I can say I speak a little bit of Maori."

In December, the channel released audience research showing that
non-Maori outnumbered Maori among the 667,000 who had watched MTS since
it started.

Leuschke says she often lingers to watch other programmes after Korero
Mai. "A lot of TV is very standardised. The people who make Maori TV
often seem to be having fun - it's a little more relaxed."

When MTS started broadcasting last March, the TAB could have offered
short odds on the channel folding within its first year. From the
scandal of original CEO John Davy's false credentials to rows over
taxpayer-funded productions that never went to air, its birth was as
drama-packed and convoluted as any long-running soap. The axe swung on
leading characters as wildly as a soap in ratings freefall - Derek Fox,
who stepped in after Davy, departed amid sexual harassment allegations
to be replaced by Ani Waaka, who left in November. Other heads rolled,
including programming boss Joanna Paul and Maori language general
manager Joseph Te Rito.

The whiff of scandal has quickly lifted and the Maori channel has become
just part of the spectrum for unsatisfied couch potatoes.

But as National's Maori Affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee puts it, the
jury is still out on whether MTS is justifying its existence. Its
purpose is to promote Maori language and culture "through the provision
of a high-quality, cost-effective service ... that informs, educates,
and entertains a broad viewing audience, and, in doing so, enriches New
Zealand's society, culture, and heritage".

While supporters maintain MTS is having a far-reaching impact in the
community, they cannot produce the vital audience figures to silence
the doubters. Indeed, Neilsen Media Research excludes MTS from ratings
surveys because it has yet to pass the 4 per cent threshold among its
1300-strong sample panel.

The channel's future under a National-led Government appears bleak.
Brownlee says he has yet to see any figures suggesting MTS is meeting
its aims. "It's a lot of money for what it's reaching. If they could
show they are getting the reach they are supposed to be getting it
would be a different story. But I can't see them ever doing that."

Administration of MTS costs the Government $13 million a year. Maori
broadcasting funder Te Mangai Paho has earmarked $40 million a year to
fund MTS programmes for the next three years. In comparison, NZ on Air
spends about $62 million to support local content on mainstream TV.

Brownlee says National would review the channel's future before
committing ongoing funding. While a court decision affirmed the Crown's
obligation to promote te reo through TV broadcasting, National believed
the Government could meet its obligations by using TVNZ's charter.

Brownlee may be missing the widescreen picture. MTS backers say it is
not just about the language - the Maori channel generates pride in
tikanga (Maori culture) and reveals Maori stories that would otherwise
not be heard.

It is a focal point for what some refer to as the Maori renaissance - a
demonstration of "can do" optimism, which promises far-reaching
benefits across society.

And it is distinctively Maori - not afraid to take risks, to laugh at
itself, to do things differently. Derek Fox, now director of Mana Maori
Media, says shows such as Marae DIY and Kai Time On The Road show that
reality television need not be staid and formulaic. Frequent use of a
live studio, while budget-driven, also adds vitality. "That was the
only way we were going to get a bigger bang for our bucks. If we did
things the same way as other TV stations it would have cost hundreds of
thousands of dollars that we didn't have."

Radio Waatea general manager Willie Jackson says there's no disputing
the impact the channel has made in the community. "They have some
fabulous bilingual shows like Kai Time On The Road, Marae DIY and Ask
Your Auntie. The bilingual approach has been a huge success for them -
people will stay tuned if they understand what's happening."

Despite these successes, there's a loaves and fishes feel to what's
happened so far. Production houses want access to more funding -
railing against an agreement with Te Mangai Paho to "cap" production
costs at $20,000 a half hour.

"We are charged with giving the same quality as we would in a mainstream
programme for an absolute fraction of the price," says Kiwa Films
executive producer Rhonda Kite.

"We do a documentary for TVNZ or TV3 for $100,000 to $140,000 an hour
compared with $40,000 an hour for MTS."

For Veeshayne Armstrong, MTS means part-time work doing voiceovers and
as a voice on films and cartoons dubbed into Maori.

"As a parent who sent her son to a kura kaupapa, I think it's really
important that it's not just left at school - Maori television is
another resource and it's so accessible. It helps to normalise te reo
and have it as part of everyday life.

"It is helping to bring Maori into the 21st century."

Jim Mather, the channel's new chief executive, is conscious of the need
to broaden the viewer base and improve market share.

He promises more subtitling, particularly on Te Kaea, the nightly news

More programmes will be aimed at younger viewers - "the Maori speakers
of the future".

Market research is under way to better understand what audiences want.
And a marketing drive to entice new viewers is planned. The channel
offers wider benefits for Maori, says Mather.

"Over and above revitalising the language and culture, we have
opportunities to provide some very positive role modelling, such as
Maori business programmes.

"There are social development benefits that will come from Maori
television as well."

Maybe two decades from now the 20th anniversary of Maori Television will
be marked by its CEO quoting vital statistics: not just audience ratings
but improved Maori academic achievement and lower youth offending - as
well as a profitable balance sheet for the Government.

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