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Hospital soap scrubs up well

This time 31 years ago, the nation’s daily papers weighed in on the first episode of brand spanking new local soap opera ‘Shortland Street’.

Fair to say, the reviewers were not especially kind – a critique that condemned the show for “over-acting, under-acting, cliched characters, corny scripts, sluggish editing, dated camera shots, and tediously drawn-out scenes” reflects the general tenor of the reception it received in its early outings.

Perhaps the most striking reaction was the visceral horror expressed about our collective ears being assaulted by the awful Kiwi accent, the nation’s airwaves in 1992 still largely being the preserve of received pronunciation.

Indeed, such was the savaging initially meted out to ‘Shortland Street’ that the only reason broadcaster TVNZ didn’t immediately bin the series was that a season’s worth of episodes had already been ordered in advance.

There was certainly nothing to suggest the show would still be screening more than three decades later, in the same prime time slot in which it began.

Not that there seems any real prospect the series will still be running in another 31 years – which would, by the by, still be lagging behind the remarkable 63-year run that UK soap ‘Coronation Street’ has currently clocked up.

Whereas ‘Shortland Street’ at its height would draw between 200,000 and 350,000 viewers per episode – along with the advertising revenue reflecting such a sizeable audience – these days it attracts only a fraction of that, around 70,000 sets of eyeballs an ep on live telly.

That’s actually not too shabby in a screen entertainment environment where a huge percentage of the potential audience has abandoned linear television in favour of streaming services – and it does enjoy over 400,000 streams a week, making it by far the most popular show on TVNZ+.

But those figures strongly suggest the show is rapidly approaching the point – if it hasn’t already arrived – where it will no longer be able to pay its own way with ad income. And television executives aren’t exactly known for allowing sentimental attachment to persuade them from swinging the axe when one of their properties is no longer running hot.

But regardless of how much longer new ‘Shortland Street’ episodes continue to appear on our various screens, the show’s place in the annals of the country’s cultural history is assured.

It’s been a massive boon to the local screen production sector, having acted as a training ground for a vast number of screen technicians, actors, and writers. It’s no exaggeration to say, for example, that Peter Jackson’s ability to establish his moviemaking empire in Miramar was in part enabled by the talent pipeline created by the soap set in a private medical clinic.

‘Shortland Street’ has also done a great service in blunting Kiwis’ crippling cultural cringe. Sure, we’re still collectively far too concerned with offshore opinions about us but at least we no longer reflectively wince when we hear ourselves speak.

Perhaps one of the show’s greatest contributions to the country was that – for a while at least – it provided some cultural common ground. Whether we loved it or loathed it, it was a shared experience – something that’s become a perilously rare occurrence.

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