Joanna Hunkin is the Head of Entertainment and Lifestyle for NZME.

Shortland Street ratings uncovered: The stories that gripped New Zealand

Shortland Street premiered on May 25, 1992 to mixed reviews but soon found favour with Kiwi viewers.
Shortland Street premiered on May 25, 1992 to mixed reviews but soon found favour with Kiwi viewers.

It promised to be "bolder and slicker than Neighbours" and "closer to real-life than Gloss". That was how the New Zealand Herald described the upcoming series Shortland Street in May 1992.

The debut episode was praised for its quick pace and saucy sexcapades - which saw Michael Galvin's character Chris Warner officially dubbed Dr Sleaze - but it took Kiwis a while to embrace Shortland Street as their preferred 7pm viewing.



Ratings from AGB McNair showed the programme debuted on May 25, 1992 to a 24% share with viewers aged 5+. The following days and weeks would see that number drop to around half that, with the ratings continuing to languish for the first three months.

By late July, the Herald began reporting ratings were "on the up and up" and by January 1993, headlines proclaimed "Street at top of the heap" as Shortland Street became the number one programme in the 7pm time slot.

Just over a year later, 619,000 viewers (aged 5+) were sitting down to watch the Street's exploits, with the cast becoming bona fide Kiwi celebs.

The full data for those early years is no longer available, with Nielsen taking over the TV ratings contract in 1995. Anecdotally, insiders maintain 1994 was the golden age of Shortland Street, attracting more than 20% of the total viewing audience - or more than 600,000 viewers (aged 5+) each night.

But with the data that is available - from 1995 to present day - we've tracked the highs and lows* of Shortland Street and the stories that gripped the nation.

HIGH: MAY 1995



For many fans, 1995 remains a standout year in Shortland Street history for featuring the inaugural Christmas cliffhanger, which saw a truck plough through the clinic, killing Carmen.

Unlike the modern cliffhanger, which plays a few days before Christmas, the 1995 festive special screened on Christmas Day, leaving fans weeping into their Christmas pud.

Kiwi hearts broke on Christmas Day 1995 when Carmen died, leaving Guy Warner and baby Tuesday bereft.
Kiwi hearts broke on Christmas Day 1995 when Carmen died, leaving Guy Warner and baby Tuesday bereft.

But it was earlier that year that really piqued Kiwis interest, as ratings spiked in May 1995.

Not even the departure of Street faves Martin Henderson (in January) or Temuera Morrison (in April) could dampen Kiwis' enthusiasm for the soap, with an average of 308,000 viewers (aged 25-54) tuning in each night. As producers celebrated the soap's third birthday in May, the show was officially deemed a success with the Herald reporting Shortland Street was predicted to last another 10 years.

It was also the year Shortland Street declared financial independence, announcing it no longer needed Government support, having received a total of just under $9 million from New Zealand on Air between 1991 and 1995.

Early 1995 saw both Martin Henderson and Temuera Morrison left the cast of Shortland Street but ratings were still riding high.
Early 1995 saw both Martin Henderson and Temuera Morrison left the cast of Shortland Street but ratings were still riding high.

LOW: NOVEMBER 1996

The success of 1995 wasn't to last and the following year saw a steady decline in viewers, with November 1996 seeing an average just 190,000 viewers (aged 25-54) tune in. On screen, Rangi and Rachel finally broke up and David and Ellen discovered they were expecting a baby.

Off screen, Blair Strang (who played Rangi) found himself in the midst of a real-life drama when he was charged with assault following a drunken night out at Crow Bar. Strang pleaded guilty to assault, after a barman refused to serve the inebriated actor and refunded his $5. Strang reportedly hit the server with an open hand.

Christmas came early on the Street as production shut down in November and took its longest summer break on record, returning in January 1997. The Christmas cliffhanger saw a drunken Rachel pin a wheelchair-bound Rangi against the wall of her garage, before passing out with the engine running.

HIGH: MAY 1999

With 344,000 Kiwis (aged 25-54) tuning in each night, May 1999 remains the highest rating period on record - and with good reason. For many viewers, the stories that unfolded in early 1999 define Shortland Street and remain some of the most memorable on record.



On screen, Ferndale was reeling from the disappearance of Lionel Skeggins, who had recently been swept off a rock while trying to escape his scheming wife Mackenzie. Despite Lionel's disappearance, Mackenzie was still up to no good and was now drugging her step-son Luke in order to keep him under her control.

Caroline and Greg grew suspicious of her behaviour but it would be several more months before they managed to bring her down. Meanwhile, Moira was shocked to discover her son Jordan in bed with another man and questioned his suitability to be a bone marrow donor for his brother Maddy, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia.

The show's seventh birthday saw Fergus being kicked out of home by his father, David, and Caroline brought Oscar back to Ferndale to rattle Mackenzie (who had previously tried to kill him).

LOW: NOV 2006 - MAY 2007

November 2006 marked the beginning of a dark period in Shortland Street's ratings history, where the soap experienced its softest ratings on record. January 2007 saw an average audience of 166,000 viewers tune in - less than half the number who watched the series at the peak of its popularity.

Behind-the-scenes there was plenty of drama, as Australian actress Laurie Foell left the series, with producers re-casting the role of Justine Jones. A move they described at the time as "a mutual decision". In November 2006, Lucy Wigmore was cast as Jones 2.0, becoming the first character in Shortland Street history to be played by multiple actors.

The original Justine Jones, played by Laurie Foell. The character was later recast and played by actress Lucy Wigmore.
The original Justine Jones, played by Laurie Foell. The character was later recast and played by actress Lucy Wigmore.

As the series approached its 15th anniversary in May 2007, things were looking bleak - forcing producers to bring in the big guns.

In addition to a wedding (Sarah Potts and TK Samuels), the return of an old favourite (Craig Parker and daughter Tuesday), the writers set about introducing their most outlandish plot yet - Shortland Street's own serial killer, the Ferndale Strangler. Joey Henderson was introduced in mid-2007 building to one of the series' most talked about cliffhangers and giving ratings a much-needed shot in the arm.

Joey Henderson, played by Johnny Barker, will go down in Shortland Street history as the Ferndale Strangler.
Joey Henderson, played by Johnny Barker, will go down in Shortland Street history as the Ferndale Strangler.

HIGH: AUG 2010

August 2010 saw Shortland Street screen its first ever 90-minute episode, marking a golden period for the soap's ratings. On average, 344,000 viewers (25-54) tuned in each night, which remains the highest rating period on record. The feature-length episode saw the dramatic exit of Kieran Mitchell - played by former Coro star Adam Rickitt. Featuring explosions, kidnappings and car-jackings, producers went all out to deliver a major ratings boost.

Coronation Street star Adam Rickitt spent three years on Shortland Street as Kieran Mitchell.
Coronation Street star Adam Rickitt spent three years on Shortland Street as Kieran Mitchell.

Elsewhere, serial philanderer Chris Warner got a taste of his own medicine when he caught his girlfriend Zoe cheating on him - with his cousin - spelling the end of their romance. He also discovered he had fathered a child with his ex-wife Alison (played by Danielle Cormack) back in the 90s, when Phoenix arrived unannounced in Ferndale.

HIGH: MAY - JUNE 2012

As Shortland Street celebrated its 20th anniversary, producers were determined to outdo any previous efforts, concocting a feature-length episode to outshine all others.

As the hospital's new helicopter crashed into the carpark, Bella and Nicole were left fighting for their lives. Elsewhere, Gerald underwent a heart transplant (the heart miraculously survived said crash and being flung into a nearby tree) and the dastardly Callum Mackay finally left Ferndale.


To mark the occasion, several old cast members returned to the Street, including the much loved Jefferies family and Shortland Street's original receptionist Marj (Elizabeth McRae). Ratings spiked as a result with an average audience of 339,000 sitting down for their 7pm fix.

HIGH: MAY 2013

Chris Warner and Rachel McKenna are not only Shortland Street's longest serving characters - they are also two of the most popular. When their relationship hit the skids in May 2013, ratings spiked. By the end of the month, they called it quits (not for the first or last time).

Chris Warner and Rachel McKenna's romance remains one of the rockiest in Street history.
Chris Warner and Rachel McKenna's romance remains one of the rockiest in Street history.

LOW: DECEMBER 2016

As Shortland Street approaches its quarter-century celebration, ratings are not what they once were. December 2016 saw viewers drop to an average of 189,000 (25-54) each night - the lowest numbers since 2007's dark days. Despite ending the year with an underground prostitution ring, murder and kidnapping, ratings have been slow to improve with an average of 196,000 viewers (25-54) tuning in each night throughout March.

Despite a dramatic cliffhanger, December 2016 saw some of Shortland Street's lowest-ever ratings.
Despite a dramatic cliffhanger, December 2016 saw some of Shortland Street's lowest-ever ratings.

ALL TIME HIGHEST:

Cast your mind back to May 31, 1995. It was a Wednesday. Any idea what you were up to? Chances are you were one of more than 700,000 Kiwis who sat down to watch Shortland Street that night - for what remains the highest rating episode of all time. Around one in four Kiwis watched the episode, which saw Tiffany resign from Shortland Street, after facing off against resident bitch Carla.

You may recall Tiffany had tested positive for Hepatitis C, information which Carla used to blackmail her and force her to resign. You may also recall Carla was appointed acting director of nursing, after her sister Ellen was stood down for a positive drug test (thanks to Carla secretly sprinkling marijuana on her pizza). In this episode, clinic boss Julia finally realised Ellen had been set up and ended her suspension.

Carla Crozier remains one of the Street's most infamous villains.
Carla Crozier remains one of the Street's most infamous villains.

THE FUTURE:

It's no secret that the media landscape is changing - rapidly. As audiences are fed more content across more platforms, the number of people watching television is shrinking. So it's no great surprise that Shortland Street now attracts around half the number of viewers it once did.

But despite that, TVNZ remains confident the future of Shortland Street is bright. In fact, commissioning boss Andrew Shaw says it is the most important programme on the channel.

"Shortland Street's performance on TV2 is very strong and drives the schedule. It is a turn-key show, in the same way that news and current affairs is on One. More importantly, it speaks very much to the identity of the channel."

It is also essential to TVNZ's on demand platform, where it consistently ranks as the most viewed programme.

"Audiences are declining but they're not collapsing," says Shaw. "Shortland Street is the biggest of the big local shows. Therefore, its place in the landscape, even with audiences migrating to digital, is extremely good and very powerful."

TVNZ says despite falling ratings, the future of Shortland Street is bright.
TVNZ says despite falling ratings, the future of Shortland Street is bright.

Even with digital numbers combined, he acknowledges the total audience isn't as vast as it once was. But says no one's is.

"You can't compare a landscape where there was a village to now, when we live in this Metropolis of video. But it's still very strong. Nielsen's system is not the most robust in terms of how many people are watching television. It's an indicator and a guide.

"We rely on a number of other tools to give us a health check on Shortland Street and we undertake those constantly. Today I speak with some real enthusiasm and confidence as to the future of it."

- NZ Herald

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