Photo: South Pacific Pictures
Photo: South Pacific Pictures

Pop CultureMarch 27, 2023

A new report into Shortland Street shows its vast impact – and hints at peril

Photo: South Pacific Pictures
Photo: South Pacific Pictures

Exclusive: A new report into the cultural and economic benefits of Shortland Street shows its power – but as with any good soap, trouble is coming. Duncan Greive reports on its findings.

When Shortland Street debuted in 1992, no one could have predicted what it would become. NZ on Air, itself only a few years old, placed a bold bet that NZ had the capacity to create a daily soap, and that audiences would follow. In retrospect it was prescient timing – coming a decade after Aotearoa began its period of opening up to the world, following the election of David Lange, and a decade before the internet began its remorseless erosion of television audiences. 

Within a few years of launch, Shortland Street became a phenomenon, a show which routinely hauled in close to half a million viewers. It quickly became profitable enough for TVNZ that advertising more than covered its costs and its production required no public funding. While it was a punchline for many snobbish critics, who never watched but maligned it anyway, it was that rarest of jewels – a huge commercial hit that delivered major socio-cultural returns. 

The original Shortland Street cast, 1992

The commercial side meant enormous ad revenues for TV2, enough to not just fund the eight figure production cost, but to float the whole evening’s programming slate. The cultural and social issues Shortland Street raised included major characters representing diversity across gender identity, ethnicity, sexuality and disability – not just in the background, but with major arcs which meaningfully probed the realities of their identity. 

These are the two planks of a major new cultural and economic impact report by Olsberg SPI, commissioned by South Pacific Pictures, the production house that has made Shortland Street from the very start. It’s a dense 48 page document which drills into everything from the show’s role in the screen production sector, to the post-show careers of many of its actors, to tax revenues raised. 

It creates a compelling portrait of a series that is unique in the history of New Zealand television – a scripted daily drama sitting alongside the likes of our 6pm bulletins, Marae, What Now, Fair Go and Country Calendar as the forever pillars upon which our local television industry rests.

The cast in 1997

Yet the very fact of this report’s existence implies that not all is well in Ferndale, the fictional Auckland suburb where Shortland Street is located. These reports don’t come cheap, and have a clear function: to ask that the reader think broadly about all that this institution delivers. And, ultimately, to make a case for a return to some kind of financial support. Anyone who can read ratings and do maths can see where this is headed.

For years that would have been laughable. Shortland Street was one of our biggest shows, and had enormous audiences on linear television – particularly in the lucrative 25-54 demographic. In 2017, for the show’s 25th anniversary, the Herald’s Joanna Hunkin broke down its ratings among that group through the years, ranging from lows of around 200,000 in 1996 and 2016 to highs of almost 350,000 viewers in 1999 and 2010. 

We’re a long way from those numbers now. The most recent week for which ratings are available saw just 79,000 viewers aged 25-54 tune in. This is not really a reflection on the show itself, which is in extremely good form, story-wise. That number, 79,000, is actually the 5th best overall in the demographic – and the highest rating show for TVNZ2. What it really reveals is just how fast younger audiences have flowed away from linear television.

A cameraman gets a shot of TK Samuels (Ben Mitchell)

Because audiences have a direct correlation with advertising spend, there is a point at which revenues recouped from screening Shortland Street will become insufficient for TVNZ to justify the outlay. And while the show produces other revenue streams, including via TVNZ+ and syndication, they are unlikely to be sufficient to cover its costs. 

Which makes it the perfect time to assess what this show is, and what it does for this country. Rather than summarising the report, I’ll instead talk about five ways you can think about Shortland Street, with reference to its findings. Collectively they should give some sense of why it is such an important piece of our culture, and why, given the different ways we support the screen industry, from the Screen Production Grant, to NZ on Air, to RNZ, that there is a strong case for figuring out a way to keep Shortland Street around.

Thomasin McKenzie as Pixie on Shortland Street, circa 2015

You can think of it as a giant screen apprenticeship scheme

Part of the report involved a survey of cast and crew alumni. Shortland Street operates 49 weeks a year, and is functionally a medium-sized business unto itself, with over 300 casual and long-term contractors, 190 actors including 21 core cast, and 65 core crew. As a result, it has highly developed systems for onboarding and training staff, and regularly sees former cast members move into writing or directing roles, first on the show and then in the industry more broadly. 

The survey backs this up, with 80% of respondents saying they developed new or honed creative or technical skills while working on Shortland Street; 74% say they gained valuable connections within the industry, with over half gaining job opportunities through the show. It has manifestly been a springboard for talent. Temuera Morrison, KJ Apa, Martin Henderson and Thomasin McKenzie are among a large number of former cast members who have gone on to major international stardom (you could view the show as an early stage tourism fund too, if you wanted to draw a long bow). But it’s also worth considering the likes of Kiel McNaughton and Oliver Driver, just two of the many who started as core cast before becoming powerhouses within different aspects of the industry.

Director Kiel McNaughton previously played nurse James ‘Scotty’ Scott on the show

You can think of it as infrastructure 

The production sector is notoriously cyclical. The streaming cutbacks and the loss of Lord of the Rings means New Zealand screen production is currently in one of its periodic down patches. But because Shortland Street operates essentially full-time, it provides a stable, reliable place of work in an industry where that’s a very rare proposition. So as well as functioning as a training ground for cast and crew on their way to bigger things, it can also be viewed as an engine which never stops running, helping keep the lights on while the rest of the industry rises and falls.

You can think of it as a production sector stimulus

Olsberg estimates Shortland Street’s economic impact over the 10 years to 2022 as being $227m in direct economic impact, with a further $262m in supply chain impacts, and another $59m generated through spending associated with wages earned on the show. While that alone is not an argument for support – every business generates economic impacts and pays tax – there is a long history of scale productions, from sports to culture, receiving direct or indirect government support. Sometimes these are tax rebates, sometimes support through NZ on Air or the Film Commission. Sometimes just direct appropriations, as with the likes of the America’s Cup. 

Shortland Street’s Jay and Maia tying the knot in 2006.

You can think of it as part of our education system 

The report states it well. “Audiences from across the country, with varied socio-political, economic, and cultural backgrounds have been exposed to socially prevalent topics, including but not limited to gender dynamics in the workplace, sexuality, mental health, suicide, assisted dying, sexual violence, cultural representation and drug use.”

During Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori much of the script was in te reo, with captions in English. Shortland Street featured gay and lesbian relationships in the ‘90s, a major story arc around asexuality in the ‘00s and multiple trans actors in the ‘10s. It’s done this with a hyper-diverse cast, whose identities and the tensions they can embody were baked into their storylines. It’s done all this without being dull or worthy, creating a safe, entertaining space for parents to open up conversations on these topics with their kids.

You can think about it as the anchor of domestic streaming

The most recent week for which I have data showed Shortland Street as by far the biggest show on TVNZ+, driving 455,000 streams in a week. That is in part where the missing audience from linear has gone – the story is not nearly so gloomy as it might have seemed above. But because online audiences are inherently more fragmented, it’s always going to be near-impossible for a domestic production at Shortland Street’s scale to work financially on streaming alone. So even though we know an end to linear is coming, the economics of streaming won’t support an industry at anything like the same size.

But look more closely at the numbers, and you can perceive Shortland Street in a different light. The next highest-streamed domestic production on TVNZ+ is 1News. But even though the news has two more episodes a week, it gets just 180,000 streams – a little more than a third as many as Shortland Street. While there will be big local productions coming later in the year, few if any will top Shortland Street for TVNZ+, meaning it functions as the anchor tenant of the platform representing the future of our biggest state-owned media company. Without it, there would be a giant hole, likely filled by just another big international show.

The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

Maybe you should think about it as culture which knits us together

I’m cheating here with one that isn’t explicitly in the report, but it’s strongly present as subtext. I don’t know about you, but things are getting pretty weird out there – not just in the world, but in New Zealand too. People are really mad about stuff, and seem to often be operating from quite different realities. In an algorithmic world drowning in user-generated content designed to maximise attention over everything else, the last remaining totems of the monoculture feel extra precious. 

That’s even more so when they still attract a young audience. And while Shortland Street’s audience has shrunk, it’s a long way from having vanished. While I no longer regularly watch it, all my kids, aged 9 to 22 do, as does my wife, alongside the younger two. I realise that “keeping Duncan’s family entertained” is really not the state’s business, but the data suggests we are very far from alone. 

A daily drama, corny and hammy as it can be at times, which a decent chunk of this country grew up watching and a good number still do – having that seems precious in this divided era. Certainly not something you would give up without a good hard think, and assessing all the impacts and alternatives.

So while this report is ostensibly all about Shortland Street’s benefits, and lays them out pretty well, it’s also hard to miss the low hum of anxiety it radiates. This taonga is 30 years old. For it to make 40, we are all going to need to think hard about how we fund it, and what it does. The time to start is now, before the need is screaming any louder.

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