How Shortland Street killed that awful cringe factor

By Louisa Cleave

By LOUISA CLEAVE television editor

Unlocking the secret to Shortland Street's success doesn't take brain surgery.

Our first and only daily drama series has been running for eight years and churned out its 2000th episode last night - another milestone to prompt the question: why?

The medical soap still holds a healthy position as one of the top shows watched by New Zealanders.

On Monday it attracted 603,000 viewers, dropping to 530,000 on Tuesday but rebounding to 569,000 on Thursday.

In the build-up to its debut in May 1992, its creators promised Shortland Street would be up to date on issues, fast-moving and "gutsy."

The show's first producer, Caterina De Nave, says it has stuck to those principles.

Social issues tackled by Shortland Street - HIV, racism, incest, teenage suicide, homosexuality, drug use and domestic violence, to name a few - although sometimes ahead of their time, made it contemporary and relevant.

"Shortland Street continues to be about something, and that is always the most satisfying drama," De Nave says.

"I think that people somehow thought it would change the face of entertainment, which is what it has done."

De Nave was head of development at South Pacific Pictures, which makes Shortland Street, when word went out that TVNZ wanted a five-night-a-week soap.

Establishing a Kiwi soap, and setting it inside a medical clinic - where the next story is an easy walk through the clinic door - was the brainchild of then-TV2 programmer Bettina Hollings, says De Nave.

There was "some resistance" within TVNZ at the ambitious plan but, importantly, it gained the support of NZ On Air which, along with TVNZ, provided the initial money - $7.5 million - for 230 episodes.

The agency continued to boost the show's budget until 1994, when it made its last contribution of $1.16 million.

Faced with the challenge of making a daily soap but a lack of local expertise to do it, South Pacific Pictures contacted Australian soap and quiz show specialists Grundy Television.

It sent over a large number of Australian dialogue writers and other production staff.

And so, with the Aussies on the end of the pen, our unique Kiwi soap was born.

It was racy from the start, with the first episode featuring Dr Chris Warner (Michael Galvin) getting very physical with his aerobics instructor (Suzy Aiken), and then there came a gritty birthing scene.

The censors demanded the sex scene be cut back to head and shoulders only, and the word placenta taken out of delivery room dialogue.

Herald television critic Barry Shaw said Shortland Street, after a week on air, "looks to have all the essentials for survival as a continuing series, provided that the players do not expire with mental and physical exhaustion, such is the production's unrelenting pace."

Tony Holden, who was with Shortland Street at the start as a director and is now one of the show's executive producers, remembers the Australians saying the show would run out of stories if it kept up its frenetic pace.

"I don't think we're in cooee of running out of stories. The show is organic, it has grown with the audience," Holden says now.

And therein lies the key to continuing success, he says.

Its audience has so many other options - the Internet and pay television - to turn their attention from the half-hour dose every night, but it still hooks and holds a loyal following because of its characters and stories with which we can identify.

"The toughest thing for Shortland Street is the fact there is less time to watch television. The competition from other media affects not only Shortland Street but all of broadcasting."

For that reason, Holden says, the show is careful not to abuse its viewer-loyalty or treat its audience as idiots.

"We don't take it for granted for 30 seconds, that would be death. We are very conscious of viewer loyalty.

"New Zealanders love to own something and that's very true of Shortland Street. People have grown with it in the same way as Coronation Street. We've come to know Nick so well he's part of people's households."

Only a handful of those working behind the scenes still remain from the first days of production. Karl Burnett, who plays Nick, is the only original cast member.

Holden says the show has a high burn-out because of its pacy production - 10-hour days are the norm - but it has acted as a training ground for actors and crew who have gone on to build our film and television industry.

"It has spawned a mini-industry and people who have come out of doing fast turn-around television do learn how to work quickly and effectively with very little money. They're very practical, hard-workers.

"If you have done time on Shortland Street ... you are a good, hard worker and you have learned your craft."

Shortland Street regenerated New Zealand drama and without its success there would not be the faith to fund shows such as Jackson's Wharf or the upcoming drama Street Legal, says Holden.

"TVNZ has gone out and paid a lot of money every year for 250 episodes. Their support has been astounding. They pay for it entirely."

Holden says the show strives to keep surprising its audience.

"I hope that it keeps going because I think there are stories and character's stories to be told. As long as it remains a part of people's lives it will carry on."

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