You're not in private ownership now, Shortland Street. Local telly's longest-running soap is having a facelift following a rethink of the show's future direction.

There'll be a slew of new actors and a major change in direction for its setting.

We can reveal:


* The clinic will become a public hospital.

* Shortland Street will soon have two new families — one Maori (the Hudsons) and one Pakeha (the Heywoods), and both poor.

* Viewers will see characters wearing the same clothes instead of the latest new fashion each week, and makeup will be toned down. A new, sky-blue nurses' uniform — more fitting for a public hospital — is introduced.

* The hospital will get a chief executive officer modelled on a "powerful, political woman" prominent in New Zealand society.

The moves are aimed to bring Shortland Street back in line with the social climate in New Zealand.

When the series started nine years ago the agenda was the privatisation of health services, says producer Simon Bennett, who rejoined the show last year to steward the transition.

Under the Labour Government there is a move back to district health boards running local hospitals and more emphasis on the public sector.

Shortland Street, which has always prided itself on being in touch with reality and even predicting trends, is falling into line with the changes.

"The old model for Shortland Street is no longer close to anything resembling the realities of the health system," says Bennett.

"We wanted to make Shortland Street something that would enable us to do stories that are topical and contemporary, and not exclusive to an affluent view".

Bennett says it is the third time Shortland Street has undergone a "readjustment" — the last time was in 1996 — but this time it has been thrown into the public spotlight.

Cast-axings and resignations made headline news and the show has seen a decline in its audience share in recent times.

Bennett is pleased with Shortland Street's ratings, saying it is among the top four show's in TV2's target demographic of 18-39 year-olds.

"What we're going through now is not about ratings, it's about ensuring its longevity. I find the focus on ratings irrelevant to what we're doing."

Shortland Street's makers, South Pacific Pictures, brought in soap consultant Jason Daniel from London to head a discussion on the best prescription for the show.

There was a cull of actors: Geraldine Brophy (Moira Cochrane), Greg Johnson (Dean Cochrane), Jay Saussey (Tamsin Yates), Malcolm Murray (Al Dubrovsky) and Katherine Hubbard (ambulance-driver Ange Weaver).

Long-serving cast member Blair Strang (Rangi Heremia) gave notice due to ill health.

The show now works from an industry "Bible," a common tool in international soaps, which sets out the look (sets, make-up, costumes) and a summary of the characters.

That's why characters will wear the same clothes instead of the latest fashions each week.

Of the new characters, Barb Heywood (Annie Whittle) made her entrance last week as the solo mum of Adam (Leighton Cardno) and Marshall (Paul Reid).

Bennett says the Heywood family is "a downwardly mobile family who once might have been quite well off but are struggling, mainly due to Barb's inability to function as a mother and her addictive personality."

The Hudson family will be headed by another veteran actor, Rawiri Paratene, playing Joe Hudson.

Bennett says Joe is unskilled and unemployed, and his wife, Tehana (Vanessa Rare), is a nurse and the sister of a current clinic doctor, Victor Kahu (Calvin Tuteao).

Their children are 14-year-old Tama (David Wikaira-Paul) and 16-year-old Mihi (Quantrelle King).

"The Hudson family is poor. They've moved to the city from the country and they're trying to start a new life with nothing," says Bennett.

Also among the new faces already on screen is nurse and good-time girl Toni Thompson (Laura Hill).

The family dynamics hark back to an earlier time when the McKenna and Warner families ruled the small screen.

Of course, they were "upwardly mobile" or, if you like, "filthy rich."

Bennett says Shortland Street will continue to have its share of glamour, with the likes of Rachel McKenna and Chris Warner, "who are good-looking, intelligent role models.

"You'll never lose that element of fun and fantasy, but it can't go too far so that it loses touch with anything that's realistic.

"When Shortland Street's at its best it resonates with stuff that's actually going on with New Zealand at the time.

"We've got to get back into that territory of dealing with stories that are topical and relevant. I'm not saying it hasn't been happening but, as with any show, it ebbs and flows."

Bennett says families have always been fundamental in a serial drama but Shortland Street has not had that element since the days of the McKennas and Warners.

"One of the problems we found last year was there was a lot of characters who didn't have strong bonds or ties or histories, which made telling stories hard.

"The changes or the new characters reflect a desire to have a wider range of ages, backgrounds and experiences within our characters on the show. That makes for interesting drama.

"And also it reflects the new shape of the public hospital."

How does he think fans will react?

"I think the viewers care about the characters and if we do our jobs properly and provide them with stories that are fascinating and entertaining, and characters that they are interested in and want to stay with, then the background change from private to public is not going to be a major.

"It opens up a store of possibilities that we didn't have access to before.

"What can happen on a long-running show is actors leave and you replace them with new characters, so that what started as being a well-structured mix of characters becomes a bit blurred.

"What we're doing is creating a community of characters that are fascinating and interesting and that will generate strong stories and interesting drama."