Simply outrageous successes

PROMOTING NZ TALENT: Jane Wrightson, the chief executive of NZ on Air since 2007, points out that television is not the only string in the organisation's bow.
PROMOTING NZ TALENT: Jane Wrightson, the chief executive of NZ on Air since 2007, points out that television is not the only string in the organisation's bow.

Dr Ropata might have never returned from Guatemala, and the West family might have never been born into outrageous fortune, had it not been for a law change 25 years ago.

The Broadcasting Act, passed in May 1989, led to the establishment of funding agency New Zealand on Air, which turned 25 on July 1.

It meant that suddenly - and it did happen virtually overnight - anyone with an idea for producing New Zealand content for broadcast could apply for funding. Before 1989, it was limited to the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand, which operated the two television channels and had a virtual monopoly on the radio waves.

Asked this week if NZ on Air's creation changed the broadcasting landscape significantly, TVNZ veteran Andrew Shaw said: "You need a stronger word than significantly."

The 1980s were an era when households paid - or often avoided paying - a $110 annual licence fee. The fee remained for the first 10 years of NZ on Air's existence, helping to fund programmes, before being dropped in 1999.

Pre-1989 there was virtually no internet, no pay television, and - in the television market - no competition.

Television options were about to explode. New Zealand's first privately-owned network, TV3, would launch in November 1989, while pay-TV operator Sky was just taking off.

NZ on Air's first major coup was a soap opera launched in May 1992. The first episode included the line that has gone down in Kiwi history: "You're not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata."

But Shortland Street was widely ridiculed in its early days. "Shortland Street dead end," one review said. "Soap goes down the plug hole," cried another.

Bettina Hollings, the TVNZ producer who was the brain behind Shortland Street, won NZ on Air backing in October 1991 to make New Zealand's first five-nights-a-week serial.

Production company SPP was commissioned to make 230 episodes, with a budget of $10 million.

On the soap's 18th birthday, producer Caterina De Nave said: "It was six months from sitting around a table to going on air, which is remarkable - only in New Zealand.

"It is enormously fast. You have to design and build sets, you're budgeting it, you're casting it, you're writing scripts, you're crewing it.

"Two weeks before we went on to shoot, Clayton Ercolano - who later designed Outrageous Fortune - saved our bacon. He just worked every day designing sets for two weeks - he didn't go to bed in that time."

Shaw was working at TVNZ when the soap launched and said, without NZ on Air's commitment, Shortland Street would have never got off the ground - or, at least not then.

He can rattle off a long list of NZ on Air's victories. There is Outrageous Fortune, Step Dave, Nothing Trivial, Go Girls, Beyond the Darklands, Ice with Marcus Lush, and more.

"Arguably, without [Shortland Street], New Zealand's drama industry wouldn't exist," Shaw said.

"Some of the shows might have been made, but I suspect the majority of them would have not."

Jane Wrightson has been the chief executive of NZ on Air since 2007. She was also there as television manager from 1994 till 1999 but hastens to point out that television is not the only string in the organisation's bow.

The rise of the internet now means every music single needs a video. NZ on Air helps with the cost of many of these. Shihad's Home Again, Che Fu's Fade Away, and Scribe's Stand Up are just some.

Then there is radio, which now has New Zealand content of about 20 per cent, up from 2 per cent in 1989.

NZ on Air says its "advocacy and dedicated funding system" is to thank for that.

Then there is film - think Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, Whale Rider or Once Were Warriors - in which NZ on Air had a hand.

But it is television where the lion's share of NZ on Air funding goes, and here Wrightson admits that, over the 25 years, there have been failures.

Most notable was the "spectacular flop" that was 1993 American-style sitcom Melody Rules, starring Belinda Todd.

After more than $1.8m of NZ on Air funding, it was cancelled in 1995.

Prophetically, the sitcom's first episode was named Going, Going, Gone.

The Dominion Post