Local drama production began in the early 1960s and has made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand television. Yet drama has always been a particularly vulnerable category in a small English-speaking country where imported American and British programmes have been available, cheap and popular.
While cost has limited the amount that has been made, drama’s ability to strongly reflect cultural identity has made it an important element of New Zealand television. Local drama has always been supported by public funding, and as increased competition has pressured the incomes and budgets of the broadcast channels that host it, that support has become vital in ensuring that it survives.
Television drama has included drama series, serials and soap operas, made-for-television feature films and one-off dramas packaged into anthologies. Although series and soap operas have been the emphasis for local drama (as in other countries), all these genres have been produced in New Zealand.
Booze, blokes and biculturalism
Set in a forestry town and conceived by former forester Julian Dickon, 1970s drama series Pukemanu has been described as ‘rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey’.1 It was also local drama’s first blockbuster, avidly watched and embraced by a comfortable majority of viewers.
Until 1989 public network TVNZ and its predecessors’ drama production units were the institutional base for local television drama. Public funding had guaranteed a continuity and range of drama productions. The volume and consistency of in-house production had trained generations of writers, directors and producers, some of whom remained important contributors to local screen drama in the 2000s. Popular and influential dramas of all kinds were made, including:
- Pukemanu (1971–72), the first New Zealand example of ‘series drama’ and the first television drama with regular Māori characters
- Close to home (1975–83), New Zealand’s first continuing soap opera
- Winners and losers (1976), the first filmed anthology of one-off dramas and the first anthology drama series to be independently produced
- The god boy (1976), New Zealand’s first made-for-television feature
- The governor (1977), an ambitious and compelling drama serial about New Zealand’s colonisation
- Mortimer’s patch (1980–84), a top-rating drama series
- Under the mountain (1981), an award-winning children’s serial
- About face (1985), an anthology of independently produced one-offs
- Erebus: the aftermath (1987), a four-part docudrama about the investigation into the 1979 Air New Zealand crash on Mt Erebus
- Gloss (1987–90) an unusually popular and tongue-in-cheek ‘supersoap’ that centred on a high-fashion magazine business.
Despite its benefits, the in-house system did reduce the potential diversity of local TV drama, with the dearth of independent commissioning (in drama and other key categories) also delaying the development of the independent production sector. It also confined New Zealand TV drama to productions consistent with the ‘house style’ of one network.
NZ On Air
From 1990 the institutional support and public funding of drama were the responsibility of public broadcasting agency NZ On Air. In the early 1990s the agency’s distinctive funding allocation model was stretched by a small group of ambitious dramas: An angel at my table (1990), Bread and roses (1993), Marlin Bay (1992–94) and, most challenging of all because a five-night-a-week soap opera had not yet been attempted, Shortland Street (1992–). The risk proved worthwhile, with Shortland Street becoming self-funding after four years.
While the NZ On Air model was never intended to be an alternative way to pursue public service broadcasting, it was ideal for the expensive and risk-prone category of local TV drama. It allowed private networks (TV3 and Prime) to host new local dramas, ensuring drama’s limited public funding reached a majority of viewers, despite market fragmentation.
As public funding for drama was allocated on a project-by-project basis, there was competition between the proposals put forward and between the networks for access to the strongest ideas and creative talent. NZ On Air’s drama funding was allocated directly to production companies. This empowered drama producers, although new proposals still required network agreement to screen them before they could be funded.
Drama in the 2000s
Series and serials proved to be the forms best suited to the advertiser-funded broadcast channels that hosted local dramas, and through their broad popularity secured a special place in New Zealand’s television culture. Outrageous fortune (2005–10), the most enduring and popular drama series that New Zealand has ever produced, left a legacy of audience confidence in the pleasures of local drama. That confidence assisted the popularity of later series Go girls (2009–), The almighty Johnsons (2011–13) and Nothing trivial (2011–13). With NZ On Air and key host networks TVNZ and Mediaworks placing a high value on conceptual innovation and local content when developing new dramas, viewers got local drama that reflected their lives, worlds and unique culture.