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In addition to its base in Dunedin, New Zealand, NHNZ has offices in Beijing and Washington DC and, majority ownership of Singapore-based production company Beach House Pictures and Aquavision Wildlife Filmmakers in South Africa.
It works and co-produces with multiple major global broadcasters: Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Science, A&E Television Networks, National Geographic Channel, Travel Channel, NHK (Japan), France 5 and ZDF (Germany). As a result, NHNZ's programmes are available in 180 countries.
The early years
NHNZ was originally formed as the Natural History Unit of TVNZ. The unit was created in 1977, with the aim of telling stories of New Zealand's most iconic and endangered species. In 2008, NHNZ celebrated 30 years of television production making it one of the world's longest standing production companies.
The unit's first documentaries made were a series of six 15-minute programmes called Hidden Places which featured various New Zealand habitats, notably Okarito, White Island, Fiordland, Mackenzie Country and Sinclair Wetlands, near Dunedin.
The first programme that captured international attention was the story of Don Merton's rescue of the New Zealand black robin from the brink of extinction. Several programmes were made chronicling this success story – Seven Black Robins, The Robins Return and finally Chatham Island a Black Robin Story. For more detail about the origins of these early programmes see Morris & Smith.
A focus on New Zealand stories continued during the 1980s and early 1990s, with children's series Wild Track and the series Wild South becoming cultural icons, still replayed in New Zealand today. In 1990 the company produced a series presented by David Bellamy, in association with the New Zealand Heritage Foundation, called Moa's Ark. This was the first time NHNZ had worked with an international 'star'.
Blue Ant Media acquisition
In mid-July 2020, Blue Ant Media announced that it would be selling NHNZ's Melville Street building in order to avoid having capital tied up in real estate. However, the company would remain in the premises.
In mid-December 2020, Blue Ant Media confirmed that it was in negotiations with reality television producer Dame Julie Christie as a prospective investor and partner. Christie indicated that Dunedin would likely no longer be the main base of the company but that it would be shared among three hubs in Dunedin, Auckland, and Los Angeles. As a result of the deal, Blue Ant Media had been consulting NHNZ staff.
NHNZ has been making documentaries in Antarctica for more than 25 years. The first, in 1982, featured the private life of Adelie penguins, paved the way for a further 18 titles. Icebird and Under the Ice were early offshore successes for the company, and were both produced by Neil Harraway.
The pair of documentaries, Emperors of Antarctica and The Longest Night, chronicled the over-wintering activities of scientists from Antarctica New Zealand, produced by Max Quinn in 1992, were joined by a third Solid Water Liquid Rock produced by Mike Single. This trilogy helped to establish a relationship with Discovery Channel. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, a string of documentaries were made by both Quinn and Single, while an exceptional icy dive team was led by Jeanie Ackley and Ed Jowett.
Single won an Emmy for outstanding cinematography for The Crystal Ocean and Quinn completed his trilogy, Ice Worlds, cementing NHNZ's place as a leading documentary film maker in the inhospitable Antarctic.
A second area of expertise lies in underwater filming. Two major marine based series Deep Blue, and Shark Gordon were filmed at locations throughout the Pacific. Shark Gordon was made for Animal Planet, and featured shark specialist Ian Gordon.
Whales have also featured in many documentaries including The Lost Whales about the rejuvenation of the population of southern right whales in New Zealand's subantarctic islands, and Killers I Have Known about Dr Ingrid Visser's investigations into the life and habits of New Zealand orca.
In 2010 NHNZ started producing 3D factual programming. NHNZ's first 3D documentary China Revealed: The Great Wall of China debuted on one of the world's first full-time 3D networks -3net. In 2012, NHNZ announced it was taking a lead role in the development of cost-effective 2D to 3D conversion technology, in partnership with Korean company ETRI. ETRI will use NHNZ's HD documentaries as test subjects for trialling the new technology.
NHNZ has made several successful series of programmes. Working with Animal Planet, the company made The Most Extreme, a series produced by Ian McGee. NHNZ produced 65 episodes of this series from 2002 to 2007. The show counted down the top ten animals on any given theme.
The forerunner to The Most Extreme was Twisted Tales, two series produced in 1999 and 2000 which took a single animal group like The Frog or The Bat and focused on their relationship with people through time, and around the world. Twisted Tales: The Bat earned Ian McGee NHNZ's second Emmy Award in 1999 for Outstanding Achievement in a Craft in News and Documentary Programming – Writers. The following year, Ian and co-writer Quinn Berentson were again nominated for an Emmy Award in the same category for Twisted Tales: The Rat.
In 2008, NHNZ began a new series, I Survived..., which airs on the Biography Channel. The series is now up to episode 86, and has its own spinoff series, I Survived: Beyond and Back, which features people who have died and returned to life.
Over the years, NHNZ diversified its programming away from just natural history. It gradually expanded its genres to cover health (Kill or Cure series); science (X=Force the Science of ... series; [[Mega Disaster series); adventure (Adventure Central series); and people (Tribal Life series; The Diva Mummy). In Tuna Wranglers, NHNZ tested the waters of the current popularity of reality shows about the daily lives of blue-collar workers pitting themselves against nature in extreme environments. Engineering programmes have also proven popular with the company making a string of shows from Asia and China under the Man Made Marvels and MegaStructures banners.
Archive footage – NHNZ Moving Images
In 2007 NHNZ established an Emerging Media team to maximise opportunities for either selling or re-versioning the company's footage for broadcast via a variety of platforms, including mobile phone clips and online video (Streaming media).
Several years later it created NHNZ Moving Images, NHNZ's footage archive unit, and the company now sells footage from NHNZ programmes as well as outtakes and represents the work of about 30 internationally renowned filmmakers including storm shooter Geoff Mackley and Yusuf Thakur.
In 2011 the unit signed a deal to represent National Geographic Channel's worldwide library of more than 20 years of accumulated footage from its blue-chip factual programming library, including hundreds of hours of HD footage.
In 2009, NHNZ started up a gaming division, Runaway, which has developed several video games, both for social media (Facebook), and mobile.
Its successes include Flutter, a popular Facebook game that involved breeding butterflies and is associated with the World Wildlife Fund. It grew quickly to have more than 600,000 online players after being accredited by Facebook.
Play online ceased in December 2011 to allow for new game development and Runaway announced in September 2012 on its blog that it had a mobile version of the game being tested and almost ready to be released.
In 2002, NHNZ entered into a partnership with the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand, to create a Masters in Science Communication, in Science and Natural History Film-making. The two-year course takes up to 12 students a year, and is based on a year of course work, and a year making a commercial-length documentary, in association with NHNZ.
China and Asia
NHNZ established an office in Beijing, China, in 2002, and is now the biggest outside producer of documentaries about the country. Its relationship with China was recognised when it received a Business Excellence Award at the 2011 Cathay Pacific NZCTA China Trade Awards.
Michael Stedman is credited with saving the company, which was close to being shut down when he became Managing Director in 1991 after having been Head of Training at the Australian Film and Television School, Head of Features for ABC in Australia, Consultant to the United Nations and Director of Production for TVNZ. Michael was created an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to television, and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Otago. In 2009 he was named the Screen Producers and Development Association's (SPADA) Industry Champion of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award. He retired in early 2013.
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