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SPADA 09: How far is te reo Maori from mainstream primetime?

Not unlike after the recent Rugby World Cup fiasco, Maori again seem to have been left with the short straw. Although all panel members (plus ‘token other’ Colin James) shared interesting information and perspectives, the conclusion was that the topic under discussion would soon become redundant. ‘Mainstream’ and ‘primetime’ are fast-disappearing concepts.

Kathryn Graham was the most ‘mainstream’ of the speakers in that she works at TVNZ as a commissioner. She talked about One Land, a programme that mixes three families, one of which speaks te reo exclusively, one not at all, and one Pakeha family, thrown together in a ‘social experiment’ situation recreating life in the 1800’s. The primetime programme.

Kathryn also pointed to other TVNZ programming, including NZ-UK co-production The Man Who Lost His Head and the in production Nights in the Gardens of Spain, both Sunday night drama presentations, as bringing te reo into mainstream primetime.

No aspersions were cast, but 5 instances in a year’s programming barely creates a blip on the radar, let alone any kind of meaningful penetration.

By contrast, Maori Television Service (MTS), represented by Hainui Royal, screens 100% te reo on its Te Reo channel and 70% across its two channels in primetime on a weekly basis. These amounts are by mandate, and rely on local production in a way that other channels don’t because – at the risk of stating the obvious – there’s a bit of a dearth of Maori language programming available for acquisition from elsewhere.

MTS aspires to find the balance in its use of language that satisfies and grows a diverse audience: people who want to experience te reo exclusively, its Maori viewers whose connection with the language is limited, and non-Maori-language speakers, both Maori and non-Maori, who need to be able to understand what’s happening or they’ll hit the remote and go elsewhere.

Hainui also made a point, that although a part of what MTS does is about language, it’s not that big a deal (except on Te Reo). It’s more about Maori in a broader sense – the culture, ways of doing things, ways of thinking … what he described as ‘the Maori heart’. Derek Fox echoed this point, saying of Maori broadcasting in general, “When we do it our our way, we do it well. That’s our achievement.”

He also said, in answer to the question posed by the session title, that te reo was as far away as ever from mainstream primetime. However, when the session moved from presentation to Q&A, it quickly became apparent that the issue itself was fast becoming redundant.

In the environment of proliferating channels, the anticipated death of free-to-air television as we know it and the fragmentation of viewers across both channels and platforms, the panel all agreed that ‘mainstream’ as a concept was fast disappearing as people were presented with so much choice.

‘Primetime’ now means ‘wherever I want, however I want, when I want’ to digital natives. ‘On demand’ is now here to stay. It will only become more pervasive over time as digital natives form an ever higher percentage of the population; as the platforms on which content can be delivered become even more numerous; and as the ‘engine’ that drives, or will drive, many of those platforms – broadband – becomes more widely available and fast enough to deliver everything the brave new world promises.

Somewhere in and amongst it will be Maori language programming, in whatever shape or form. Whether it will be mainstream or primetime remains to be seen, but it might well not matter.

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