A wooden shelf unit displays many televisions. On one of the screens Jacinda Ardern can be seen speaking in parliament.

Capturing the telly

5 May 2019
Television has captured the life and culture of New Zealand in a way few other media have.

By David Klein

Since its introduction to the country in 1960 it has brought an immediacy of footage and storytelling into the living rooms of our nation. Alongside archiving film and sound, capturing these television stories and bringing them into the collection is a big part of what Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision does. Overseeing this capture is the job of Liz Conway, Team Leader Film and Television Collection.

With an extensive background in television, Liz has her finger on the pulse of screen culture. She also knows plenty about screen history, too. Starting at Avalon Studios in 1981, she worked on Radio With Pictures, Kaleidoscope, Today Tonight and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra broadcasts among many other things.

With this background, she’s well suited to capture television and manage the relationships involved. “I look after the captures, and the strategy of why we capture what we do,” explains Liz. “Capture involves the recording of broadcast television and managing its translation to the collection. It is then preserved in the Archive, described in the catalogue and made available for research and viewers. At the same time, I’m contacting production companies, producers and directors. We hope to acquire master tapes from high-value productions. Many companies and producers are thrilled to find out we want their tapes.”

With television screening around the clock and more media streaming than ever before, the Ngā Taonga Selection and Acquisition (S&A) policy helps to guide us in choosing what is captured. The S&A policy states that work which ‘reflects New Zealand society, culture and technology both past and present, in all its diversity’ is to be collected. For Liz this means she targets things that “are made in New Zealand, made by New Zealanders, items made offshore about New Zealand or offshore by New Zealanders. The programmes need to have New Zealand components or be relevant to the country in certain ways”.

These recordings are sourced from a range of channels: TVNZ1, TVNZ2, Three, Prime, Parliament TV, Sky Sport and, when they match the New Zealand focus, TVNZ Duke, Bravo and Choice TV.

The S&A policy is an evolving document. “It is reviewed regularly among my colleagues in Collection Development. With my broadcasting background, I advise on what we capture off-air, ensuring topics, communities and minorities are represented,” Liz says. “I also ensure that trends in broadcasting are reflected. Recently, Prime broadcast a lengthy north-to-south train journey. It’s a growing genre called ‘slow TV’ that screens without commentary or music, only sound effects and captions.”

Though half of what Ngā Taonga captures off-air is news and current affairs, New Zealand “…in all its diversity” needs to be recorded too. “We capture reality television; it’s a huge part of the current screen culture. With something like Real Housewives of Auckland, I had to put aside my personal feelings and make sure we got it. In 30 years, it might be considered quaint.”

Alongside reality television, there’s a huge range of programming to consider: kids, drama, satire, politics, different ethnic groups and different age groups. “We’re trying to get as much diversity not just in genre, but in communities. On Freeview there is Apna TV –‘New Zealand’s first and only 24/7 free-to-air Indian Television’. They screened a series called Namaste New Zealand, an introduction to the Indian community. We grabbed that one. I hadn’t seen an English language Indian community programme before.”

With the mountain and sheer volume of programmes, strategic targeting is important to cut through the work. Copies of The Listener and Skywatch are valuable references and are never too far from Liz’s desk. Much of the screening happens like clockwork, however. “Most New Zealand broadcasters run local content from 6am – 11pm,” explains Liz. “So, Breakfast starts in the morning and later you know you’ll have the news across different channels, Seven Sharp and The Project.”

This targeting extends to working with the production companies who make the content, the other part of Liz’s role: “Our captures are of very good quality, though the very highest quality material comes from the production companies. We use these as our archive preservation master. It’s extremely valuable when we collect masters that have been kept clean and have no bugs or commercial breaks!”

This collection of television is an enormous resource and sharing it with researchers and the public is the end goal. “With items like the news, it’s likely that we hold the only copy available outside of the broadcasters’ libraries.” It’s an invaluable record of the nation’s history and includes the news, sports, drama and comedies that we all experience and tells the story of who we are.

Liz explains how this recording happens: “Each channel being captured is done through a Mac computer. We currently use a program called EyeTV. You programme what to record, when to start and stop. The next day you have a look at the capture to ensure there’s been no change from the schedule. The files get transferred and exported to a server. Quality control checks are done, then it is accessioned into our Collection Management System. Once there’s enough data, it’s transferred to an LTO tape – an archival backup system. It doesn’t take long to record hundreds of gigabytes of data.” This is an expanding project, too – currently over 5,000 titles a year are collected and added to the Archive.

While there is a general move to streaming and web-based transmission, much of television is still delivered via broadcast satellite and received by a rooftop aerial. “In the past, there have been issues with wind and rain. Plus, birds like sitting on them! Occasionally we’ve needed to have the satellite dish calibrated to point in the correct direction,” says Liz.

Hero image: The row of computers that capture television at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. (Photo by David Klein)

There’s plenty of work to keep on top of – targeting, programming, cataloguing, quality checking – plus a constant influx of new titles. Among all this, does Liz have any personal favourites? “I like a good proper Kiwi drama,” she says. “Bad Mothers is on at the moment and is brilliant. It’s an Australian co-production, written by the team from Outrageous Fortune. There was lots of Kiwi input, as well as New Zealand On Air support. It’s quite quirky. I would also love to get master tapes of 800 Words – a South Pacific Pictures and Australian Channel 7 co-production. It was all filmed in New Zealand, with a Kiwi cast and crew.”

As good as these dramas are, the immediacy of television is truly shown with live events and breaking news. The March 15 terror attacks stand out as one such recent event. “You have to be aware of what is happening in the world and how it might translate to television broadcast,” explains Liz. “When things happen, you make an assessment: will this be something broadcasters will stop for? Another strand of media is archiving, so I’m in touch with journalists who might need to request content. I have a Twitter feed that keeps me in the loop.”

In the loop, and with her finger on the pulse, Liz and her team of Collection Developers are ensuring that New Zealand television history is captured as it unfolds. Whether that’s breaking news or Real Housewives, it’s all recorded and added to the Archive among thousands of other titles each year, showing New Zealand in all its diversity and preserving our stories and our history for future generations.