Hard News by Russell Brown

55

Free the Street

"I think," tweeted Gemma Gracewood from New York, "that the TVNZOnDemand version of the feature-length episode of Shortland Street should be ungeoblocked just for my birthday."

Good point, I thought. Global distribution deals notwithstanding, doesn't the diaspora deserve a break just this one time, on the 20th anniversary of our greatest soap opera? So, with the encouragement of Toby Manhire, I decreed a hashtag -- #freethestreet -- and began the campaign to unblock the episode.

To be perfectly honest, there wasn't a lot of arm-twisting required. As the tweets began to flow, I contacted South Pacific Pictures' CEO John Barnett to explain the idea and ask how-about-it, and he promptly replied to say that it wasn't entirely straightforward -- international broadcasters and licencees would have to be contacted for approval -- but the process was underway.

Huzzah!

So I turned to the pile of old Planet magazines I've been mining for a feature story I'm doing and found the following editorial, from late 1993. Grafting an appreciation of Shortland Street onto a call to arms for the MMP era was a fairly audacious thing to do, but I think it makes sense. (In a clever piece of design, a second editorial, in which I danced on the grave of Peter Shirtcliffe, was interleaved between the lines of this one. We were so goddamn edgy back then.)

So, here is the editorial from Planet No 12, Summer 1993.

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Remember the reader survey in the last issue of Planet? There was one uniting trend. You watch Shortland Street. All of you. All of us.

The striking thing is that we not only follow the births, deaths and marriages on our favourite soap opera, we manage to feel comfortable about doing so. Somewhere, unseen, is an agenda we can live with.

"Sick of the political correctness in Shortland Street yet?" sniped another magazine this year. Frankly, no -- and neither are the young Pacific Islanders who have mass-media role models for the first time, or the gay citizens who can see themselves sensibly represented on screen.

But watching Shortland Street is hardly a bold political act. Is it a little sad that the closest we we come to common cause is our choice on the channel-changer? Perhaps.

But as a generation, we're not joiners. We rarely march in the streets, and very, very few of us subscribe to political parties. That may have to change.

On 6 November, New Zealanders chose a new electoral system -- MMP. The state of the party vote on election night also was both freakish and sophisticated, but it was less a taste of MMP than the sweet smell of inclusion. Independently, collectively, each voter wrought something interesting.

But nothing will really change unless the class of people active in politics changes too. MPs will be no better unless the parties -- new or old -- are better. It is the members of political parties who will determine who represents us all. The new reality is that we may have to consider becoming joiners.

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Off the back of that editorial, I joined the Auckland Central branch of the Labour Party the following year -- frankly, someone had to -- and persisted for another half-dozen years until I switched to a job I felt was incompatible with political party membership.

In that time, Shortland Street touched my life in any number of ways. For an entire season, one of our Planet cover posters hung on the wall of the staffroom. A whole group of my peers worked for the show in one capacity or another. And, of course, I watched it.

Do I still watch it now? Well no, I don't. But I am still amazed by the success of this show, what it represented, the people it delivered to higher honours, and the impact it had on New Zealand screen culture. Without Shortland Street? No Outrageous Fortune. And, really, no screen sector as we currently know it.

So I guess I'll have a look tonight. It'd be rude not to.

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