Will John McRae be the saviour of local drama on TV One?

With Labour breathing down the neck of TVNZ to refocus its sights on serving viewers a diet of quality television, the state broadcaster has brought in the mastermind of some of the country's best dramas.

McRae's specialty in picking hit kidult programmes is also a bonus for the network, which has neglected its children's programming in recent years.


Ask McRae what he has been doing in the seven years since the Herald last interviewed him, on the success of Shortland Street in England, and he stumbles through the impressive CV in his head to recall.

His face and opinions may have been out of the headlines since local drama's halcyon days of the 70s and 80s but McRae has never disappeared, working behind the scenes as a consultant on TVNZ dramas and overseeing the company's major investment in local soap, Shortland Street.

In a career that has spanned more than three decades, McRae has won two American Emmy Awards, and equivalents in Britain and Australia.

He spent 18 years working for the BBC, making the first of those award-winning series, Tom Brown's Schooldays. Another Emmy came his way, in 1977, for the BBC children's special Ballet Shoes.

In 1975 he became head of drama at South Pacific Television (now TV2) and during his tenure produced Hunter's Gold, The MacKenzie Affair and Children of Fire Mountain.

At the end of the 70s, he moved across the Tasman to set up an independent production company in Melbourne where he made the mini-series Water Under the Bridge, which won 12 awards.

He also had stints producing the popular drama Prisoner.

McRae returned to New Zealand in 1983 to become head of drama for TVNZ.


Then, he unveiled plans for The Country GP, the series Children of Dog Star and the acclaimed Hanlon.

McRae was prepared to take a gamble on Country GP and planned 71 episodes at a cost of $2.2 million in 1984.

Compare that to today's television environment where failing shows such as McCormick Rips are pulled off air quicker than you can say "declining ratings."

"I think what happened in the past with drama is that they get slightly nervous when something doesn't rate particularly well," McRae says.

"But take the overseas experiences. Blue Heelers is a good example. It took three seasons for that to become successful.

"That broadcaster kept with it and I think now TVNZ is in the same frame of mind.

"In the future, if something is a moderate success, they will keep with it because producers of anything can only improve their craft if they practise at it."

McRae introduced viewers in the 80s to big shoulderpads and high hair in Gloss, and rekindled kidult dramas in the form of The Fireraiser and Steel Riders.

He took over as head of TV2 in 1987 but a year later left to head TVNZ's subsidiary production company South Pacific Pictures.

McRae says he has returned to the "rockface" because of his passion for drama.

He has set targets for drama output on TV One next year. It will not be difficult to improve on a dismal record, with Duggan the last local fare offered by the channel.

McRae says TV One will deliver a new 20-hour drama series for prime time late next summer or early autumn.

His aim is to have two such series in any one year, two telemovies or one mini-series and two or three six-part comedies in any one year.

"It's quite expensive, but you've got to have ambitions. You've got to start somewhere."

McRae says TVNZ has invested money in developing shows in the past and he is keen to build on that recipe for success.

"It's money well spent because out of it may come something really good."

On the comedy side, McRae is working on the Mark Hadlow-Sean Duffy creation Willy Nilly, which starts filming next year.

What puts McRae in touch with the TV One audience?

"You've got to entertain. You cannot preach to your audience. I think the audience has got to be able to identify with characters and the stories have to be about New Zealanders.

"One day this country will have its own Coronation Street ... This country should be aiming to make something similar about New Zealand characters that is scheduled for the days Coronation Street is not on."