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Kiwi television drama deserves better

14 June 2005

Kiwi television drama deserves better

The decline in the quantity of home-grown drama on our television screens needs to be addressed by whoever forms the next government, says Dr Trisha Dunleavy, Senior lecturer in Media Studies, in the School of English, Film & Theatre, at Victoria University.

Dr Dunleavy has compiled the first ever history of New Zealand television drama in her book, Ourselves in Primetime, to be launched tomorrow (June 15). The book analyses more than 40 years of New Zealand-made television drama programmes, and provides a compact general history of the politics of television and the uses and misuses of television by politicians.

Dr Dunleavy says the book provides a history of drama’s development in different eras of New Zealand television and case-studies of ground-breaking drama programmes. It also looks at the creative influences on and key approaches to drama production in this country and highlights the institutional and policy developments that have influenced the genre’s funding and commissioning.

From the inaugural TV dramas, All Earth to Love (1963), scripted by radio dramatist Al Flett, and Bruce Mason’s The Evening Paper (1965), the book traces the progress of the genre through the initial single channel controlled by the then New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), through the pioneering drama series, Pukemanu (1971-72), the first independent docudrama, Gone Up North for a While (1972), Depression era serial The Longest Winter (1974), and into the separation in 1975 of TV administration under the newly created South Pacific Television (SPTV) with two channels, TV One and TV2.

Explaining how drama production burgeoned with the arrival of two-channel television in 1975, the book case studies such landmark productions as: the first long-running soap Close to Home which ran at 7pm two nights a week from 1975 to 1983; Winners and Losers (1976) the first independently produced drama anthology; children’s blockbuster Hunter’s Gold (1976); the trades union series Moynihan (1976-77), as the first drama to be co-produced with Australia; the compelling though controversial colonial series The Governor (1977); and Glide Time (1978), the first screen adaptation of Roger Hall’s successful stage play.

Observing how political and economic pressures impacted on television and its drama production, the book follows the amalgamation of the hitherto separate public channels (Wellington’s TV One and Auckland’s South Pacific Television) into the inception of two-channel entity, Television New Zealand (TVNZ) in February 1980 and later its major restructuring into a State-owned Enterprise in 1988, the arrival of TV3 in 1989 followed by the deregulation of the broadcasting by the fourth Labour Government.

Dr Dunleavy devotes several pages to Shortland Street, the first New Zealand soap opera to be geared to a competitive TV environment.

“Shortland Street’s construction of ‘community’ exemplifies how the conventions of the genre, while they may be universally applied, can be locally nuanced. The programme has provided regular work and a training ground for local, scriptwriters, directors, actors and crew, and has increased network confidence in the pulling power of the genre in primetime.”

"Shortland Street is an example of the power of TV drama to bring the reality of current New Zealand life and mores to the attention of New Zealand’s population – financial constraints on our hospital services with prioritisation of qualification for surgical treatment, pâkehâ bewilderment when confronted by Mâori spirituality, the complexities of lesbian relationships, the problems facing single parent households, and so on.

These undercurrents portray life in New Zealand in 2005, like it or lump it, in a penetrating way not achieved by news and what passes these days for current affairs programmes.

Dr Dunleavy laments the general lack of primetime series dramas such as Street Legal in recent years, not only for New Zealand television but also for New Zealand society.

"Despite recent successes in drama – of which Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, bro‘ Town, and The Insider’s Guide to Happiness are examples, there has been an apparent decline in this genre’s volume of output and primetime profile since 2001, when a range of local drama series (including Street Legal, The Strip, Being Eve, Mataku and Mercy Peak) graced our screens.

“As the prime seed funder of television drama, the Government needs to react to this situation and further increase the pool of available funding for the production of the ‘high production value’ forms of drama that have been the most vulnerable to funding pressures in television generally.

More public funding, particularly for the popular, continuing primetime forms of drama (which attain the highest audience profile) would allow our talented drama writers and producers to maximise the opportunities that this genre offers to reflect a sense of cultural identity and help create a better understanding by all Kiwis (including new migrants) of our changing society.

“If New Zealand’s own drama has ever needed a more overt show of widespread public support from the viewers, then that time is right now, in an election year and at a time of considerable structural change in television. In addition to the vigorous ‘thumbs up’ it continues to need from viewers of all ages, this genre is crying out for more direct and focussed political support in terms of funding and, dare I say it, formal expectation.

“Although much has been achieve since the year 2000, there is more work to do in to secure the position of locally produced drama on our screens in television’s digital future.

Why don’t those with the power to increase public funding for TV drama and to insist that it is screened by all leading networks - in primetime hours – take a risk and use that power?”

ENDS

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