Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Reality show making waves at Piha

Locals such as surfer Zen Wallis acknowledge the educational benefit of the TV show Piha Rescue. Photo / Richard Robinson
Locals such as surfer Zen Wallis acknowledge the educational benefit of the TV show Piha Rescue. Photo / Richard Robinson

A popular reality TV show has worked wonders for the safety of swimmers at Piha Beach, but some locals say its dramatic coverage has gone too far.

TVNZ's Piha Rescue has run for seven seasons, consistently pulling one of the largest audiences in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic.

It focuses on the Piha Surf Life Saving Club team, which takes a small cut of the show's earnings.

After a veteran surf school instructor complained that the cameras had become too intrusive, the Weekend Herald asked beach-goers, residents and businesses if the show was affecting their enjoyment of the beach.

Nearly all those interviewed agreed the show had played a positive educational role by informing people about swimming between the flags and avoiding rips.

Auckland councillor and Piha resident Sandra Coney said the show had raised awareness of the role of surf-lifesavers and generated sponsorship for lifesavers nationwide.

Assistant club captain Tom Jacka, 21, has been a lifeguard at Piha for seven years, and said the show had made the surf zone safer.

"It's done its job, because there are fewer rescues and incidents. When I first worked here I was off my feet all the time, we had [tourists] going in in jeans - you just don't get that now."

But he noted that in the time the show had been on air the number of beach-goers had dwindled, and he felt this could be due to Piha Rescue's portrayal of the beach as a death-trap.

"Piha is a really nice place, but all they really show is the bad parts about rips. I know people are not going to watch something that's not interesting, but it would be good to see something positive."

Lifeguards and surf instructors agreed that South Piha - the most popular end of the beach where the show was filmed - was safer than neighbouring spots.

The stretch of surf was usually well patrolled and isolated between two rock formations, and surfers felt its currents were easier to manage than those at Muriwai and North Piha.

Much of the conflict at the beach stems in part to community pride.

Piha Surf School founder Phil Wallis has been a resident for 26 years and was uncomfortable with interference by an outside group - especially people not familiar with the nuances of Piha's surf.

Mr Wallis said his criticism was aimed at the cameras, and over-dramatisation of events.

He said the reality show had real-life consequences - his surf school had been undermined by portraying him as a reckless teacher.

Josh Franklin, a shop assistant at Piha, said that in uneventful seasons Piha Rescue seemed to wring drama from harmless events.

- NZ Herald

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