The long and short of Shortland Street
It promised to be “bolder and slicker than Neighbours” and “closer to real- life than Gloss”.
That was how the New Zealand Herald described the upcoming series Shortland Street in May 1992.
The debut episode was praised for its quick pace and saucy sexcapades — which saw Michael Galvin’s character Chris Warner officially dubbed Dr Sleaze — but it took Kiwis a while to embrace Shortland Street as their preferred 7pm viewing.
Ratings from AGB McNair showed the programme debuted on May 25, 1992 to a 24 per cent share with viewers aged 5+. The following days and weeks would see that number drop to around half that, with the ratings continuing to languish for the first three months.
By late July, the Herald began reporting ratings were “on the up and up” and by January 1993, headlines proclaimed “Street at top of the heap” as Shortland Street became the number one programme in the 7pm time slot. Just over a year later, 619,000 viewers ( aged 5+) were sitting down to watch the Street’s exploits, with the cast becoming bona fide Kiwi celebs.
The full data for those early years is no longer available, with Nielsen taking over the TV ratings contract in 1995.
Anecdotally, insiders maintain 1994 was the golden age of Shortland Street, attracting more than 20 per cent of the total viewing audience — or more than 600,000 viewers.
But with the data that is available — from 1995 to present day — we’ve tracked the highs and lows* of Shortland Street and the stories that gripped the nation. * Based on average audience aged 25- 54, as measured by Nielsen.
For many fans, 1995 remains a standout year in Shortland Street history for its dramatic Christmas cliffhanger, which saw a truck plough through the clinic, killing Carmen. Unlike the modern cliffhanger, which plays a few days before Christmas, the 1995 festive special screened on Christmas Day, leaving fans weeping into their Christmas pud.
But interest had really been piqued earlier that year, as ratings spiked in May 1995. Not even the departure of Street faves Martin Henderson ( in January) or Temuera Morrison ( in April) could dampen Kiwis’ enthusiasm for the soap, with an average of 660,000 viewers tuning in each night.
As producers celebrated the soap’s third birthday in May, it was officially deemed a success with the Herald reporting that Shortland Street was predicted to last another 10 years. It was also the year Shorty declared financial independence, announcing it no longer needed Government money, having received a total of just under $ 9 million from New Zealand on Air between 1991 and 1995.
The success of 1995 wasn’t to last and the following year saw a steady decline in viewers, with November 1996 seeing an average just 190,000 viewers ( aged 25- 54) tune in. On screen, Rangi and Rachel finally broke up and David and Ellen discovered they were expecting a baby. But off screen, Blair Strang ( who played Rangi) found himself in the midst of a real- life drama when he was charged with assault following a drunken night out at Crow Bar.
Strang pleaded guilty to assault, after a barman refused to serve the inebriated actor and refunded his $ 5. Strang reportedly hit the server with an open hand. Christmas came early on the Street as production shut down in November and took its longest summer break on record, returning in January 1997. The Christmas cliffhanger saw a drunken Rachel pin a wheelchair- bound Rangi against the wall of her garage, before passing out with the engine running.
With 344,000 Kiwis ( aged 25- 54) tuning in each night, May 1999 remains the highest rating period on record — and with good reason. For many viewers, the stories that unfolded in early 1999 define Shortland Street and remain some of the most memorable on record.
On screen, Ferndale was still reeling from the disappearance of Lionel Skeggins, who had recently been swept off a rock while trying to escape his scheming wife MacKenzie. Despite Lionel’s disappearance, Mackenzie was still up to no good and was now drugging her step- son Luke to keep him under her control. Caroline and Greg grew suspicious of her behaviour but it would be several more months before they managed to bring her down.
The show’s seventh birthday saw Fergus being kicked out of home by his father, David, and Caroline brought Oscar back to Ferndale to rattle Mackenzie ( who had previously tried to kill him).
NOV 2006- MAY 2007
November 2006 marked the beginning of a dark period for Shortland Street, with the soap experiencing its softest ratings on record. January 2007 saw an average audience of 166,000 viewers tune in — less than half the number who watched the series at the peak of its popularity.
Behind the scenes there was plenty of drama, as Australian actress Laurie Foell left the series, with producers re- casting the role of Justine Jones — a move they described at the time as “a mutual decision”. In November 2006, Lucy Wigmore was cast as Jones 2.0, becoming the first character in Shortland Street history to be played by multiple actors.
As the series approached its 15th anniversary in May 2007, things were looking bleak — forcing producers to bring in the big guns. There’s nothing Shorty viewers love more than a wedding and in May 2007 they got one of the Street’s most infamous — Dr Sarah Potts finally married TK Samuels. But not before she considered ditching him for Craig Valentine. May also saw the return of Guy Warner, played by Craig Parker, who had left Ferndale 10 years earlier when his partner Carmen tragically died from a brain haemorrhage after a mad man drove his truck into the hospital ( a classic Christmas cliffhanger). After fleeing to America with baby Tuesday, Warner returned with his daughter, and the ratings returned in kind.
Long- term, the writers set about introducing their most outlandish plot yet — Shorty’s own serial killer, the Ferndale Strangler. Joey Henderson was introduced in mid- 2007 building to one of the series’ most talked about cliffhangers — and giving ratings a much- needed shot in the arm.
August 2010 saw Shortland Street screen its first ever 90- minute episode, marking a golden period for the soap’s ratings. On average, 344,000 viewers ( 25- 54) tuned in each night, matching the all- time series’ high ratings of 1999.
The feature- length episode saw the dramatic exit of Kieran Mitchell — played by former Coro star Adam Rickitt. Featuring explosions, kidnappings and car- jackings, producers went all out to deliver a major ratings boost.
Serial philanderer Dr Love ( Chris Warner) got a taste of his own medicine when he caught his girlfriend Zoe cheating on him — with his cousin — spelling the end of their romance. He also discovered he had fathered a child with his ex- wife Alison ( Danielle Cormack) back in the 90s, when Phoenix arrived unannounced in Ferndale.
MAY- JUN 2012
As Shortland Street celebrated its 20th anniversary, producers were determined to outdo any previous efforts, concocting a feature- length episode to outshine all others.
As the hospital’s new helicopter crashed into the carpark, Bella and Nicole were left fighting for their lives.
Gerald underwent a heart transplant ( the heart miraculously survived said crash and being flung into a nearby tree) and the dastardly Callum Mackay finally left Ferndale. To mark the occasion, several old cast members returned to the Street, including Shortland Street’s original receptionist Marj ( Elizabeth McRae). Ratings spiked as a result with an average audience of 339,000 getting their 7pm fix.
As Shortland Street approaches its quartercentury celebration, ratings are not what they once were. December 2016 saw viewers drop to an average of 189,000 ( 25- 54) each night — the lowest numbers since 2007’ s dark days.
Despite ending the year with an underground prostitution ring, murder and kidnapping, ratings have been slow to improve with an average of 196,000 viewers ( 25- 54) tuning in each night throughout March.