Slaughter on Shortland Street

By ANNE BESTON and MONIQUE DEVEREUX

EXCLUSIVE

Scene One: A dimly lit producer's office in a television studio in Auckland, late last week.

Sharp knock on the door. Enter Shortland Street receptionist Minnie. She sits down on the comfy leather chair and has a short conversation with the show's executive producer.

Close-up of her face. Tears are welling in her eyes. She leaves the room, slamming the door.

The scene is repeated four more times as, one by one, Shortland Street identities Moira, Dean, Tamsin and Al enter the room, and leave again.

Cut to other side of desk where executive producer Tony Holden turns off his computer and gets up.

Fade out, credits roll - minus Katrina Devine, Geraldine Brophy, Greg Johnson, Jay Saussey and Malcolm Murray.

The five stars from the top television soap have been given the chop as part of a major revamp in what an industry insider called a "night of the long knives."

The real-life drama included soon-to-be-dumped actors being called into Holden's office and told they were no longer wanted. Many were in tears, but had to go on camera to record their scenes.

"A lot of them were humiliated. They've had their guts ripped out and no one was there for them to talk to about it," said one industry source.

"They say Shortland Street is like an extended family, but there was no counselling or anything."

It is understood that the five will be gone by February. The show is filmed 12 weeks ahead.

Devine, who has played Minnie Crozier since 1994, and Brophy, who has played receptionist Moira Cochrane since 1997, are the longest-standing actors to be dumped.

The other characters to go are Brophy's on-screen husband, Dean Cochrane, played by Johnson, and nurse Tamsin Yates, played by Saussey. The fifth doomed character is surgeon Al Dubrovsky, played by Murray.

The Herald understands that more stars could be axed. Programme maker South Pacific Pictures has told staff the show is losing ratings and the company wants major changes, including making it more family-oriented.

South Pacific Pictures managing director John Barnett denied that wholesale changes were in the pipeline and said characters and storylines were under constant review.

"The show is dynamic. We are always looking at things we can do to make it reflect the country we live in. Characters' roles reach a point where they have fulfilled their potential and then they get replaced - that's part of being a freelance actor."

He denied that the company was unhappy with the ratings and said November was traditionally a time when the ratings went "soft."

Shortland Street remains one of TV2's top-rating shows, with about 700,000 fans tuning in most weeknights. It grabs about 15 per cent of the 5-plus audience and over 20 per cent in the key 18-39-year-old demographic. The five-nights-a-week show consistently sells out its slots to advertisers.

There are rumours that TVNZ plans to screen a hospital drama on Television One, but One programmer Karen Bieleski said she could not comment because local drama funder New Zealand On Air had still to be approached.

"We are certainly planning a major drama for next year, but it's not quite a hospital drama."

TVNZ communications manager Liam Jeory said the company was "right behind" the changes South Pacific Pictures was making.

"Shortland Street continues to be a fantastic show, but revamps have always occurred - you have to keep it fresh and exciting."

It is not yet known how the characters will be written out or if they will all go at once, but Barnett said there would be no flaming finale.

* How do you think Shortland St should write the actors out of the show? A big explosion? A nasty crash? A crazed patient with an axe? Do you have a better idea?

E-mail you ideas to Anne Beston

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